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Are Japan’s rookie lawmakers being treated like kids?

November 9, 2009

Name tags on their chairs so their “teachers” can take attendance; instructions on how to greet their elders politely; orders to turn up on time.

Rookie lawmakers in Japan’s ruling Democratic Party are, critics say, being treated like first-grade students instead of a talent pool the government can draw on to tackle tough policy problems from a bulging debt to strained ties with Washington.

Political mastermind Ichiro Ozawa’s strict control of the 141 new lawmakers swept into office by the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) huge August election victory that ousted their long-dominant rival has cast a spotlight on the paradoxical power of the man many credit with engineering the historic win.

JAPAN-POLITICS/OZAWAFears that Ozawa, who bolted the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993 and spent the following years plotting its overthrow, would pull the strings in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government have simmered since he took over as the Democrats’ No. 2 after their stunning win at the polls.

His grip on the party grabbed fresh attention recently when he scuppered a plan to draft 14 first-term lawmakers for a new task force set up to identify wasteful projects that can be cut from the national budget, an urgent chore now that Japan’s public debt looks set to exceed 200 percent of its GDP this year.

“Why is Ozawa doing this? Because for him, political power means numbers and numbers mean elections, so the Democrats need to keep the seats they won and to get ready for the next election now,” said political commentator Hirotaka Futatsuki.

“But taken to an extreme, the result would be that all the new lawmakers have to do is raise their hands to pass laws.”

Japanese media have been full of how Ozawa is riding herd on the new lawmakers, referred to in Japanese as “ichinensei,” or “first graders”, a word that conjures up the image of nervous six-year-olds headed for their first day of school — though the rookies range in age from 27 to 75.

Newspaper reports say they start most days with “classes” not only on basic policies but parliamentary etiquette as well.

“Ozawa’s excuse was that these first-year legislators should be concentrating on learning the ropes. But these individuals are experts in their respective spheres,” said a commentary in the Asahi newspaper after they were banned from the task force.

“If Ozawa goes too far in trying to enforce his ‘philosophy’ of how the party should be run, he could create a situation where … the cure is worse than the disease.”

Still some pundits say Ozawa’s directive that first-termers concentrate on getting re-elected in the next general election, which must be held by 2013, makes sense, considering the fate of the “Koizumi Children” – lawmakers elected on popular premier Junichiro Koizumi’s coattails when he led the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party to a massive victory four years back with promises of reform.

All but 10 of the 83 “Koizumi Children” lost their seats in the August poll, when the LDP was ousted for only the second time since its founding in 1955.

“If you don’t win, you can’t do anything,” said Steven Reed, a professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University. “He’s got them focused on becoming multiple-term winners.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato


There is a lingering doubt among the Japanese population and media that DJP is a fit party for government, and Ichiro Ozawa is keenly aware that an undisciplined party and coalition will follow the example of the Hosokawa government (i.e. fail). In an executive-within-the-legislative system, most MPs are needed to make up the numbers, not to make policy. So it makes sense to do what he is doing.


And MacArthur was damned for calling the Japanese children…

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