Friday, June 25, 2010

Seven Samurai: The Next Generation

The Japan political elite is all at sixes and sevens. At least, that's how the press sees it.

On June 17, Sankei Shimbun ran a brief but tantalizing article describing a new group of seven up-and-comers within the DPJ. “As the next generation after Seiji Maehara and the rest of the so-called "Seven Magistrates," wrote Sankei, “these seven are known within the party as the Seven Samurai.” 

The focus of the article was the fact that the group had met in a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo that evening to recognize the services of the retiring Yoshimitsu Takashima, Secretary General of the House of Councilors DPJ caucus. Sankei listed the group's members as:

Shinji Tarutoko, DPJ Parliamentary Affairs Chief
Takeaki Matsumoto, Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration Chairman
Goshi Hosono, DPJ Acting Secretary General
Wakio Mitsui, Diet Affairs Committee Deputy Chairman
Takeshi Hidaka, Ichiro Ozawa's former secretary
Yutaka Banno, HR Diet member from Aichi
Koji Matsui, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary

Although the Sankei article gave no more information about the group, the presence of Ozawa's former secretary is the most obvious indication that these Seven Samurai represent not just a different generation, but a different faction within the DPJ than the anti-Ozawa “Seven Magistrates.”

Sankei is not the only publication to take note of the Seven Samurai. The July edition of Bungei Shunju features a lengthy article by Taro Akasaka, written just before Hatoyama's resignation, describing the group's formation and its clash with the Six Magistrates in the waning days of the Hatoyama Administration. That's Six Magistrates, not seven, according to Akasaka, because Shinji Tarutoko withdrew from that group, began cooperating with Ozawa, and ended up as one of the Seven Samurai instead.

Akasaka relates how the retiring Takashima – whom he numbers as one of the Seven Samurai in place of Mitsui – somewhat drunkenly coined the group's name back on May 6 as the group met in Korakutei, another upscale Tokyo restaurant, at a time when the DPJ's prospects for the summer elections were looking grim. The group was already ostensibly honoring Takashima's retirement.

“It’s the Seven Samurai, isn’t it.”

The somewhat drunk Takashima spoke with a dizzy expression.

“Do you want to hear my last request at this time of troubles before the House of Councilors election? What would you do if there were a party leadership contest before the election?”

Akasaka goes on to relate that in the discussion that ensued, the pro-Ozawa group agreed that even if Hatoyama stepped down, they wanted Ozawa to continue to hold power within the DPJ, ideally by replacing him as party leader and Prime Minister. However, given Ozawa's unpopularity with the public, he was far from a sure bet to win a party leadership contest. Instead, “the group decided to try to support Hatoyama and Ozawa [avoiding any resignations], and if that didn’t work, to throw their support behind a puppet who would allow Ozawa to continue to wield real power within the party” as Secretary General.

This stands in sharp contrast to the goals of the Six Magistrates, who very much wanted to see a dual resignation from Hatoyama and Ozawa. Akasaka points out that the Magistrates had never been Hatoyama loyalists, having instead supported one of their own members – Katsuya Okada – in the party leader's contest last September. He writes that throughout May, things seemed to be going well for the Samurai, but that the Magistrates saw their opening when Ozawa and Hatoyama finally split over the SDP and Futenma: in a secret meeting between the two on May 27, Ozawa said he wanted to keep the SDP in the ruling coalition for the Upper House elections, but Hatoyama still fired SDP leader Fukushima the next day when she refused, as a cabinet member, to sign the cabinet decision on transferring the Futenma to Henoko, and the stage was set for the SDP to break away and the two leaders to resign days later.

Although Akasaka's piece was written just before the climax of the post-Hatoyama leadership struggle he depicts, his predictions were dead on. When Hatoyama and Ozawa resigned, the Magistrates were able to rally the bulk of the party around their candidate – Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan – while the Seven Samurai united as many of the pro-Ozawa troops as they could behind one of their own – Shinji Tarutoko – who was happy to put himself forward as an Ozawa proxy. The only thing Akasaka failed to forsee was the remarkable extent of the Magistrates' victory, and the degree to which that victory would turn around the fortunes of the DPJ.

As befits an intraparty struggle, now that it's over, the party has publicly coalesced around the winner. However, as Sankei's article demonstrates, the Seven Samurai are still meeting together, despite their loss and their patron's ostentatious political “exile.” Moving forward, any observer wanting to know how Ozawa's political influence is fairing under Prime Minister Kan could do worse than to keep an eye on his seven loyal samurai.

Conrad Chaffee works as a Japan Media Analyst for a defense contractor in Northern Virginia and was an APP research assistant

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