This has been a surprise. When Okada became party president less than three months ago, the DPJ was in turmoil. Its two most senior members, Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa, had succumbed to a far-reaching pension scandal that forced them to resign their leadership posts. With only weeks to go before the election, the nation's largest opposition party seemed rudderless and lacking a message. Political pundits predicted a thumping defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's near-hegemonic Liberal Demo-cratic Party (LDP), which has had a nearly uninterrupted hold on power for almost 50 years.
But Okadaa former bureaucrat and five-term Diet memberstepped into his new role with unexpected brio. He quickly brought his party back on message and waged a confident campaign. Capitalizing on an unexpected drop in Koizumi's popularity, Okada stoked the fires of outrage over the Prime Minister's two biggest recent missteps: his perceived mishandling of a major pension-reform bill, and his unpopular decision to keep troops in Iraq beyond Japan's original commitment date.
On the July 11 polling day, voters responded, handing the DPJ 50 of the 121 seats contested, for a net gain of 12 seats. The LDP, meanwhile, won only 49falling embarrassingly short even of its modest 51-seat goal. Although outright control of the government was never in question because the LDP retains a majority of the parliamentary seats that weren't up for election, the outcome has been a major blow to Koizumi, one that may cripple his ability to push through many of the financial-reform initiatives he has declared crucial to the remainder of his term (which is scheduled to end in the fall of 2006).
With 80% of the contested seats going to two parties for the first time in 33 years, the DPJ's gains have revived talk that after several misstarts, an era of true multiparty politics is at hand in Japanand Okada is the country's new political It Boy. In an interview with TIME two days after the election, a beaming Okada said, "I think the public is beginning to be comfortable with the idea of a two-party system." But in a wide-ranging conversation on topics such as North Korea, the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and relations with Chinaall peppered with plenty of criticisms of KoizumiOkada also made it clear that his sights were set even higher. He spoke not just of becoming an effective foil to the LDP but of actually winning a parliamentary majority in the next major election, expected to take place in approximately two years. "We see this [past] election as a stepping stone to gaining political power," he said.
Okada has a difficult task ahead of him. Many critics say the DPJ has not distinguished itself from the LDP on many key issues. And they say that the DPJ, an alliance of several previously feuding parties, is divided by ideological differences and factional infighting and could break apart as easily as it came together.
But others increasingly believe that Okadathe scion of a Japanese retailing dynasty and a Harvard graduateis the party's best long-term hope of presenting a unified front against the LDP. His reputation as a serious policy wonkparticularly on Japan's hot-button pension-reform issueand his history as a committed consensus-builder, they say, have made him a potent contrast to Koizumi, whom voters have begun to think of as imperious and impulsive. "Okada is a leader for the times," says Etsushi Tanifuji, a political-science professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. "After 9/11, politics in some way had to be very speedy. But voters are realizing that speedy can be sloppy." If Okada can keep the DPJ's momentum going, he may soon have reason to replace his current parliamentary motto with another classic Japanese saying: Teki zai teki shoThe right man for the right job.