Here's a quick take on yesterday's exchange between Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Abe. I may be completely off base and today Mr. Ozawa will make me look stupid by running circles around Mr. Abe. But I want to post it before the 1 PM Diet Plenary, so I'm going to do it now. I hope to give more thought to this theme and come up with something more conclusive. For now, here goes.
Yesterday (Oct. 18) in the Diet, Ichiro Ozawa faced off against Shinzo for the first time. On such occasions, the Japanese media will balance the scorecards by carefully choosing the commentators for the occasion, but if you read between the lines of the news articles and the abbreviated transcripts available in the dailies, it is clear that Mr. Ozawa needs more game. He chose to launch his critique with the wrong topics, took the wrong tack of questioning, and was unable to show any sense of overall strategy. That would be three strikes if it were baseball, but let's pretend it's football, and call it third and ten. But if the DPJ loses both by-elections next Sunday (what began as a likely split now has both LDP candidates leading in the polls), many in the DPJ will be regretting their latest choice for party head, the sixth in ninth year of its existence.
Ichiro Ozawa, in his first Diet face-off against the new prime minister, decided to attack him on two fronts: constitutional amendment and the UN sanctions. Now it is true that the LDP as a whole tends to tack to the right of public opinion as a whole, and that Mr. Abe is seen as a charter member of this drift. However, if Mr. Abe is something of a grind, the constitution and North Korea are his double majors. Moreover, the Japanese public and almost the entire mainstream media are now supporting constitutional amendment. As for the sanctions, with the abductees issue ("bogus" or not) already whipping up anti-North Korean sentiment, it's the last thing over which you want to go up against the suddenly China-friendly prime minister on. Unless. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Why couldn't Mr. Ozawa take Mr. Abe to task on growing economic kakusa, i.e. (regional and personal) disparities. That's one subject where he could have depicted Mr. Abe as Mini-Koizumi, the inheritor of a tainted legacy. Then there's education. That's another issue where the blame for growing kakusa could be laid at the feet of a veteran cabinet member/chief aide and LDP policy head under Prime Minister Koizumi.
Not that Mr. Ozawa aced the two subjects of his choice, either. On the constitution, he chose to let himself get bogged down on the GHQ origins of the present Constitution with an idiosyncratic reductio ad absurdum argument that Mr. Abe's position should lead to the conclusion that the Constitution should be null and void. Legal scholarship aside, it is safe to say that the public is less interested in where the Constitution came from than where it is going.
As for the UN sanctions against North Korea, it's mystifying to me why Mr. Ozawa did not attack the administration for its lack of preparation. Almost two weeks after the nuclear test and almost a week after the UN resolution, the Abe Cabinet is not even sure what laws apply, let alone how Sure, Mr. Abe has only been on the job for so long. But he was the chief of cabinet, and he was front and center on the issue as such, much to Foreign Minister Aso's chagrin. If anyone should have been prepared, it was Mr. Abe. Besides, nobody asked him to put all his energy into an inaugural trip to China and South Korea. (Not that I disagree with that call, but just in case anyone needs reminding, I'm arguing the case for Mr. Ozawa). And it's not as if the whole thing came as a surprise to everyone. Instead, he got bogged down in not-ready-for-prime-time arguments over the well-known distinction he makes between participating in UN actions and cooperating with the US military. Good point, but that is not what is engaging the Japanese public at the moment on this issue, it is not a weakness of Mr. Abe's unless you strongly disagree with his staunch pro-US views (now more popular with the North Korean threat), and Mr. Ozawa did not do a good job of educating them here either.
Wrong subjects, wrong tack. This exposes a total lack of a sense of strategy, both short-term and long-. I have the uneasy feeling that the DPJ leadership is giving no consideration to how the showdown would play in the media, how it would feed into the by-elections, or where they intend to go from here to the by-elections to the make-or-break 2007 Upper House elections. This is really not surprising if you see DPJ as a grab-bag mix of everyone from the moderate wing of the old Socialists to LDP doves to young conservatives who would not look out of place among LDP friends of Abe. Perhaps the problem is compounded by the reclusive Mr. Ozawa's reputed lack of interpersonal skills (he does have a reputation) and difficulties with an upfront role (he does have a track record).
Let's hope, if only to keep the Japanese public involved, that this afternoon, at the 1 PM Lower House Plenary. Mr. Ozawa will make this post look silly by attacking Mr. Abe on the issues where Mr. Abe is vulnerable, under his own rules of engagement. And which ever way it goes, the DPJ will have some ground to make up between now, the by-elections, and the make-or-break 2007 Upper House General Elections.