Japan’s New Shadow Shogun

A mercurial longtime powerbroker, now disgraced, is behind the rise of Japan's opposition party.


The center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated the Japanese Diet for more than a half-century. It oversaw the economic stagnation of the 1990s, and it revitalized itself in the 2000s only to fall into fractious disarray by 2006. The voting public has finally had enough — and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looks almost certain to take power in the Aug. 30 general election.

The stark shift in political tides is perhaps best described as the LDP’s loss, more so than the DPJ’s gain. But the opposition party has transformed itself from an inchoate also-ran to a disciplined and united political movement. That change is mostly due to one man: Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s recently disgraced and highly powerful former leader. And though he won’t be at the head of the party, his role within it is one of the big questions facing the DPJ as it looks toward victory this month.

Ozawa has loomed large in Japanese politics since the end of the Cold War. He took over his father’s seat in the Japanese Diet, the country’s legislature, in 1969 and became a popular LDP leader in the late 1980s. From early in his career, he was the political godson of Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary leader who refined the LDP’s political machine and paved over Japan in the process.

By the early 1990s, Ozawa became disenchanted with the LDP’s pork-barrel politics. He started advocating for the "normalization" of Japanese security policy — a commitment of forces outside Japan, as with Operation Desert Storm. Most of all, he became convinced that the country needed more vigorous democracy, in which parties competed for votes by crafting the best policies. Ozawa gathered a group of loyalists who shared his ideas. Eventually, his faction pulled out of the LDP entirely, toppling its government in 1993 — the first time since 1955.

Ozawa, though not in the Cabinet, was the key player in the short-lived non-LDP coalition government. (The LDP regained power in 1997.) He supported the fragile coalition from behind the scenes, helping to broker the most important political deals. Additionally, he published Blueprint for a New Japan, a highly influential manifesto, calling for electoral reform and more assertive foreign-affairs and defense policies.

As a fulfillment of his Blueprint, he sought to build a stable and strong opposition party throughout the 1990s. This led to a few misfires. He helped create the New Frontier Party, which contested one general election before dissolving in 1997. Then he supported the Liberal Party, already composed mostly of politicians loyal to him. It briefly joined the LDP in a tumultuous coalition government, but never gained political traction.

Ozawa finally found a viable vehicle when he merged the Liberal Party with the fledging DPJ in 2003. He cajoled the party into the center, forging a consensus position on foreign policy among party members with markedly different ideologies and improving the recruitment of viable candidates for office. He also bulked up the party’s agricultural policies to better appeal to longtime LDP supporters in depressed rural areas. During his three years as party leader — from 2006 until this spring — the DPJ became disciplined and more focused.

This meteoric political career — within the leading party and against it — has garnered Ozawa an outsize and controversial reputation. He has no shortage of enemies from across the political spectrum. Many politicians and commentators deride him for his Machiavellian behavior and secrecy: He rarely explains the reasoning behind his decisions and expects loyalists to trust his lead unquestioningly. Notoriously, in 2007 he entered into negotiations to create a grand coalition government without even consulting many LDP party elders.

Others accuse him of caring more about politics than policy. The implication is that Ozawa is unchanged from his days as Tanaka’s young lieutenant, more interested in acquiring power than in figuring out how to use it. The arrest of a political aide on charges of taking illegal contributions from a construction company — the scandal that led to Ozawa’s resignation as party leader — seemed to confirm the criticism. Ozawa is, above all, polarizing. The intense hatred of his critics is matched by the equally intense loyalty of his longtime allies. And because Ozawa rarely gives interviews and often works behind the scenes, he has preserved an air of inscrutability.

Now, Yukio Hatoyama is the DPJ’s leader and the presumptive prime minister. But Ozawa remains kingmaker: the DPJ’s chief election strategist with the fealty of a band of party members in the Diet who could ultimately number up to 100. Thus, he and his supporters will be critical to the success or failure of a DPJ government, especially leading up to Japan’s upper house elections next summer.

The question now is how to fit this outsize figure into the new government — a problem similar to the one faced by Democratic Party loyalists in the United States over Bill Clinton’s role in the Obama administration. Conventional wisdom holds that the DPJ must find a role for him within the party so that he uses his considerable talents without undermining or overwhelming its leadership during its tenuous fresh tenure — not an easy balance to find.

One idea — allegedly favored by Hatoyama — is for Ozawa to move into the post of party secretary-general. In this role, Ozawa would discipline DPJ backbenchers and prepare the party for the next election — a task that might perfectly suit his talents. But a Secretary-General Ozawa would surely be tempted to question the Cabinet and influence its policies from the outside. This would undercut one of the DPJ’s core principles: streamlined, transparent, accountable government.

Thus, it could also make sense to include Ozawa in the Cabinet — better that he disagree with a policy from within the government. Hatoyama has a reputation of being a weak leader, with poorly developed policy ideas: The success of his Cabinet will depend on having it staffed with strong ministers. (This contrasts with the government of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a charismatic and popular figure.) Ozawa would be best suited at a post crafting political strategy, as a deputy prime minister or minister without portfolio. But having Ozawa in the Cabinet would naturally stir criticism that Hatoyama is the elder leader’s puppet.

Despite these criticisms and concerns, it is possible to overstate Ozawa’s influence. Unlike the unwieldy coalition that formed a government in 1993, when Ozawa toppled the LDP, the DPJ is more unified — and there is more to the party than Ozawa. Further, a DPJ government presents Ozawa with the best opportunity for him to implement his long-standing vision of a new Japan. Whether Ozawa ends up as kingmaker or good soldier, then, the ascendancy of the new party bodes well for the Japanese.

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