Japan's New Prime Minister — and New Shadow Shogun

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(L. to R.): Franck Robichon / EPA / Corbis; Yuriko Nakao / Reuters / Corbis

Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa

Yukio Hatoyama knows that change in Japan doesn't come easily. On Wednesday, Sept. 15, he became the country's 60th Prime Minister and only the fourth since 1955 from a party other than the long-ensconced Liberal Democrats (LDP). At his first presser since officially assuming the post, he asked the Japanese people for patience. "Through trial and error, we may make mistakes," he said. "But I would like the Japanese people to be gentle with us." He continued, "This is an encounter with the unknown, and we're embarking on a trip that we've never experienced." His Cabinet appointments immediately received praise. But a big question remains: How will he work with Ichiro Ozawa?

Ozawa is the Secretary-General of Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) and the éminence grise of the electoral campaign that catapulted the new Prime Minister to power to transform Japanese politics. More than anyone else over the past 20 years, Ozawa worked to bring down the Liberal Democratic Party through means both public and subtle. His opinions, such as pursuing independent foreign-policy goals rather than cleaving to the U.S. (as Tokyo has done since the end of World War II), are likely to gain traction — raising the question of how much influence he will have on policy.

Over three decades, Ozawa has wielded his influence behind the scenes, and many fear that, as Secretary-General, surrounded by close allies, he could exercise veto power over policy legislation and undermine Hatoyama's control. Takao Toshikawa, the editor of the political newsletter Insideline, has named Ozawa the "new shadow shogun" (as has the Economist). He says, "Ozawa's power is increasing day by day, and I'm afraid that if Ozawa's influence becomes much greater, how Hatoyama will maintain leadership." Toshikawa calls Ozawa's views radical, particularly those that could threaten bilateral relations with the U.S.

Other experts say Ozawa's new role is more focused on the interests of the party. Says Jun Okumura, a senior advisor at the think tank Eurasia Group and a former government official: "It's Hatoyama's Cabinet, and Ozawa's party. I don't think Ozawa will meddle on the policy side. He has his dream job — another crack at sticking the knife into the LDP heart without the distasteful job of being accountable to the media." Gerald Curtis, a Japanese-politics expert and professor at Columbia University, says the Hatoyama Administration is a game changer in Japanese politics — and that Ozawa's objective has changed as well. The key question, he says: "Does Hatoyama as Prime Minister have the leadership ability to say, 'This is what needs to be done,' and insist it get done? At this point you don't want to underestimate Hatoyama's determination to make the most of the position he's in."

Much work has to be done. Hatoyama has yet to make his first major policy speech, addressing his vision of Japan, which, says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University's Japan Campus, needs to deal with "the demographic death spiral — low fertility, underemployment of female professionals, low immigration. That's the real life-and-death question for the nation."

"Hatoyama is dead serious about changing the way Japan is governed," says Columbia University's Curtis, who points out that his Cabinet appointments clearly demonstrate the DPJ's view that ministerial positions are critical to policy, that important decisions won't be left to the bureaucrats as in past administrations. "[The new Cabinet] is not simply a change of characters in a game that continues to be played in the same way as before. They're serious about changing the way that government works — and that's reflected in this Cabinet." Hatoyama has surrounded himself with key DPJ executives in what Okumura says could be the "strongest across the board" Cabinet ever. Key members are Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii and Health Minister Akira Nagatsuma, who will have to deal with tough issues that the Japanese public — aging and anxious about the future — want tackled quickly: the anemic economy and the mismanaged pension system run by the Health Ministry.

"I was overwhelmed with feeling," said Hatoyama at his debut press conference, describing his reaction to being elected Prime Minister, "and at the same time I felt a hefty responsibility on my shoulders." The heft is more than responsibility: it is the weight of an entire nation — and a shadow shogun — looking over his shoulder.