Without fanfare, Osamu Fujimura will become the Democratic Party of Japan’s longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary on May 25.
A skilled political operator who prefers backstage deal-making to the glare of television lights and sensational headlines, Fujimura has until recently been one of the lower profile members of the Noda Cabinet and one of its most influential figures.
But as he tries to line up the backing needed to make headway with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s two deeply unpopular policies--raising the consumption tax and restarting nuclear reactors--Fujimura is finding his cherished anonymity increasingly difficult to come by.
With those policies also opening a split between the prime minister’s office and the leadership of the ruling DPJ, Fujimura is fighting an increasingly public battle with another who is also adept at the political game: DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi.
Basic differences about the direction of the Noda administration are behind the growing friction between the two men.
Koshiishi, an ally of former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, has made it clear that he wants to avoid a situation where Noda feels compelled to dissolve the Lower House in this Diet session to call a snap election.
Ozawa has his eye on regaining the helm of the DPJ in the party presidential election due in September and doesn't want to muddy the waters beforehand with a national election.
Koshiishi said recently: “The best scenario would be to hold simultaneous elections for both chambers (in summer 2013).”
That stance, however, is a major obstacle to Fujimura and Noda’s efforts to win the cooperation of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party on legislation to raise the consumption tax rate. The LDP has repeatedly demanded early dissolution of the Lower House and a snap election, and the flexibility to negotiate on the point in exchange for its cooperation on this critical piece of legislation, upon which Noda has staked his political career.
Fujimura was forced into a hurried rearguard action when The Asahi Shimbun reported on May 18 that he had been touting proposals on Lower House electoral reform to an executive of the LDP.
That liaison role with other parties would normally be handled by Koshiishi as DPJ secretary-general rather than Fujimura, an official of the government.
But Fujimura needed to bypass Koshiishi on the electoral reform issue because, before going ahead with a snap election, the parties need to resolve the major discrepancies in the value of votes for Lower House constituencies that the Supreme Court has ruled as unconstitutional.
Fujimura said in a news conference on May 18: “I am not in a position to make such a proposal. I do not have such a role, either.”
He later visited Koshiishi’s room in the Diet to say the report was groundless, but appears to have been given a skeptical reception. Just two days before, it had also been reported that Fujimura secretly urged the LDP to consider a meeting between Noda and LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki.
Koshiishi commented to Fujimura at their May 18 meeting: “Your name is always used.”
Fujimura explicitly linked his approaches to the LDP with his effort to force through the tax increase in an exchange with one LDP lawmaker. “I want Prime Minister Noda to at least get his consumption tax increase passed,” he told the lawmaker, who used to sit alongside Fujimura on the benches of the now-defunct Japan New Party.
Fujimura and Koshiishi have also been at loggerheads over the LDP’s demands for the dismissal of two Cabinet members, Takeshi Maeda and Naoki Tanaka, who were subject to censure motions by the Upper House in April. Fujimura has indicated flexibility, commenting, “We are prepared to talk (with the LDP on this issue).” Koshiishi flatly countered that he had “no intention” to support the Cabinet members’ ouster.
But, while Fujimura and Koshiishi plan their next moves in Tokyo’s corridors of power, the chief Cabinet secretary also faces a growing, and perhaps more deadly, threat from a completely different sort of political animal: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto.
Fujimura, who represents the Lower House from the Osaka No. 7 constituency, is thought to be facing an uphill battle in the next Lower House election against Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai party, which has made opposition to another of Noda’s unpopular policies—restarting nuclear reactors.
Fujimura claimed: “The restart (of nuclear reactors) is not an issue to be disputed in the election.” Hashimoto, whose style of politics is in many ways opposite to Fujimura’s low-key approach, begs to differ and looks set to hammer away at the nuclear issue.
Whatever the future holds, Fujimura will become the DPJ’s longest serving chief Cabinet secretary this coming Friday, surpassing Hirofumi Hirano’s 266 days, Yoshito Sengoku’s 221 days and Yukio Edano’s 232 days in office.
In the hyperactive world of Japanese politics, that is quite an achievement, and Fujimura appears determined to leave some sort of concrete legacy from his time in office.
He asked one veteran LDP lawmaker: “Do you think that making no decisions is really the right way to go?”
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