Raw Japan

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Japan’s ‘shadow shogun’

December 18, 2009

Often said to prefer to rule from the shadows, ruling party Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa dominated the front pages of most of Japan’s major newspapers on Thursday, after giving Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama what reports said was a dressing down over government spending the previous day. 

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Ozawa and other party officials had presented Hatoyama and several cabinet ministers with a list of suggestions that included scaling back a key election promise to provide universal child allowances and abandoning a pledge to abolish an unpopular levy on gasoline.

When the mild-mannered Hatoyama took over the Democratic Party leadership in May, critics said he would amount to nothing more than a puppet of his brusque predecessor, Ozawa, seen by many as the architect of the party’s sweeping August election victory.

A poll in the conservative Sankei newspaper last month showed nearly 42 percent of respondents saw Ozawa as the most powerful man in the government, compared with just over 18 percent who picked Hatoyama. Ozawa also grabbed the spotlight when he led a recent delegation of more than 140 Democratic Party lawmakers on a trip to China to help improve ties.

Speculation about the role of the ‘shadow shogun’, though a favourite topic of Japan’s mass media, has so far done little to damage support for Hatoyama’s government, which has slipped from initial highs but still hovers around 56 percent in the latest survey, although some experts forecast it could add to doubts about his ability to steer the world’s second-biggest economy.

Despite the charges that Ozawa is trying to run the show, some media speculated his tough words for Hatoyama were really a rescue mission in disguise.

Hatoyama’s government, struggling with Japan’s massive public debt and a weak economy, is struggling to find ways to trim record budget requests so that it can cap new bond issuance around 44 trillion yen in the fiscal year from April. Scaling back, dropping or delaying some campaign promises looks essential to keep the cap given an expected shortfall in tax revenues.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato

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