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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 14, 2003)

Ishihara Confronts Japan Highways to Demonstrate Koizumi Cabinet's Vitality

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
William T. Stonehill (Contributor, NBR'S Japan Forum)

J. Sean Curtin: The new Koizumi Cabinet is barely off the starting blocks and already it has created the impression that Japanese politics might be changing. The new Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Nobuteru Ishihara, is leading the pack with a full-frontal assault on the moribund Japan Highway Public Corporation.

When Ishihara was recently appointed Transport Minister, he said he planned to sack the president of Japan Highways, Haruho Fujii, over a secret balance sheet scandal. On Sunday 5 October, a determined Ishihara demanded that Fujii tender his resignation, but on Monday a defiant Fujii refused. So, that evening Ishihara burst in on the NHK evening news to say that he planned to sack Fujii.

NHK News devoted its first 20 minutes to Ishihara's dramatic confrontation with Fujii. This extraordinary episode reinforces the impression that the new Cabinet is determined to pursue a reform agenda or at least try very hard.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the whole affair was Ishihara's frankness on the issue. His devastating description of the complete incompetence at the top of the agency was breathtaking. It was a great piece of live TV and a style of politics the electorate is not familiar with. More performances like this and Japan may well change. Politics will certainly begin to interest the public.

William T. Stonehill: There may be more here than meets the eye here. The (Japanese) Asahi has been loud in the defense of Mr. Fujii over the last several days and contends that he is not in the pocket of the highway interests at all.

What may be going on here is payback. Mr. Fujii, while not in the pocket of the highway lobby, was the compromise candidate of those very parties who opposed Mr. Koizumi in the recent election. Appointing Mr. Fujii in the first place was considered a disappointment by progressive reformers and a lateral move to placate the conservative wing of the LDP, who wanted to strangle the highway reform commission in its cradle. It was the classic face saving checkmate. Mr. Koizumi got his highway commission and the LDP dinosaurs got Mr. Do Nothing (Mr. Fujii) in charge of it. The result was that although the highway reform commission did indeed exist, it mainly moved stacks of paper from point A to point B, and then back again. While Mr. Fujii has done nothing wrong, he has also done nothing.

J. Sean Curtin: All high-profile political actions usually have a host of ulterior motives. In this particular case, besides the dramatic dismissal of Mr. Fujii, I would estimate that the following three objectives probably top the list.

(i) The Sunday timing of the announcement was aimed at stealing the limelight from a convention by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ gathering to mark its merger with the Liberal Party was completely overshadowed by the Fujii firing. The number one news item on Sunday and Monday was the Fujii sacking with the DJP conference suffering a total eclipse.

(ii) In the run up to a general election, Koizumi is determined to display the fresh vitality of his new Cabinet and to demonstrate its renewed commitment to reform.

(iii) Allowing Fujii to stay in his post might adversely affect the Liberal Democratic Party's election prospects. The financial report scandal is not the only controversy that Fujii has been involved in since taking up his post in June 2000. In that same year, he was accused of having received six million yen from a construction company implicated in a bribery scandal linked to a former Construction Minister, Eiichi Nakao. Fujji himself was a former administrative vice-minister at the Construction Ministry.

William T. Stonehill: What we are seeing also is Mr. Koizumi at his manipulative best. He has a genuine talent for allowing his allies to be themselves, to the point where it could destroy them. He allowed Mrs. Tanaka to shoot her mouth off, and genuinely accomplish something in shaking up the Foreign Ministry, but dropped her like a hot potato when she got into political trouble.

Mr. Ishihara, for all the applause he is gathering like Mrs. Tanaka, is also sticking his neck out in the same way that Mrs. Tanaka did. Let's see if Mr. Ishihara has enough political juice to survive firing Mr. Fujii, as Mr. Koizumi, consummate politician that he is, can hardly be expected to stay loyal indefinitely to Mr. Ishihara.

There's an old poker saying that "winning the pot, and managing to walk out the door with your money are two different things". Let's see if Mr. Ishihara can pull this off, or if Mr. Ishihara ends up mainly benefiting Mr. Koizumi by getting rid of Mr. Fujii and himself.

J. Sean Curtin: Ishihara's TV interviews certainly had the feel of Tanaka at her crusading best. Koizumi seems to have given him a carte blanche on the Japan Highways issue. However, I am not so sure that Koizumi could afford another public relations disaster like the Tanaka dismissal. Koizumi's poll ratings nosedived and his party rivals began sharpening the knives. It was only Koizumi's surprise and well-timed visit to North Korea that re-injected life back into his premiership. While it might not be a poker saying, "once bitten, twice shy" might be more appropriate here.

For the Japanese public, the most significant aspect of the whole affair is Ishihara's incredible openness about the complete shambles within Japan Highways. Ishihara's forthright manner was impressive and I am sure people will demand more of the same. I believe we could be witnessing the birth of a more open and straightforward type of Japanese politics.

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