TCS Daily

The Land of Ozawa?

By Jason Miks - April 11, 2006 12:00 AM

It's not often that a candidate campaigns to lead his party on a promise to change himself. Yet such may be a sign of just how desperate the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has become, as they have selected just such a candidate in Ichiro Ozawa.

After last year's general election disappointment in which the party lost 62 seats, mostly to Prime Minister Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the youthful Seiji Maehara was chosen to try and revitalize DPJ fortunes. But he failed to make any real headway and the party continued to struggle in the polls. His fate was finally sealed by the party's handling of a February scandal over a faked e-mail, in which a DPJ member attempted (falsely) to connect the son of a ruling-party politician with the scandal-plagued Internet company Livedoor. Maehara felt that the leadership had no alternative but to resign over the matter.

Yet though Ozawa is an enormously experienced political operator, the DPJ has taken a risk in choosing a man with a reputation as a destroyer. Formerly a leader of the LDP, he founded the breakaway Japan Renewal Party (Shinseito), which seriously destabilized the LDP and eventually ended its 38 year domination of Japanese politics. He later became the leader of the New Frontier Party and then the Liberal Party -- which itself split when Ozawa took his followers out of it in 2000 -- prior to joining the DPJ.

Ozawa's supporters contend that his forceful personality and his tendency to breakaway from previous parties is a consequence of his strong ideological convictions; and is therefore a point in his favour.

But this forcefulness has led to him gaining reputation as intransigent in the face of dissent. Some DPJ members have also commented on an apparent disinterest in attending party meetings, with one member complaining 'he only does what he wants.' Indeed Ozawa was described by former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa as similar to a child who gets angry and hides in a closet if he doesn't get his own way.

If Ozawa is going to shed this reputation for tantrums and being a party-wrecker, he is going to have to find some way of balancing and compromising with the competing ideologies of the DPJ. He has taken one such step by choosing, as his vice president, his only rival in the leadership race.

But keeping together an organization which has been dubbed a 'hodgepodge' of politicians with varying political stances will be a real challenge (DPJ members include former representatives of both the conservative LDP and the Japan Socialist Party). The party will have to find a unifying message that somehow takes account of the disparate views on contentious issues such as revision of the constitution, international relations -- especially with the United States and China -- and the thorny question of the role of Japan's military forces.

Some, including those within the DPJ, feel that Ozawa's forceful personality will only exacerbate these tensions and lead the party to implode. His supporters, however, believe that a strong hand is exactly what is needed right now to find some kind of coherent platform.

The LDP certainly seems to think that he could be the man to do it. LDP chief cabinet secretary, Tsutomu Takabe, cancelled appointments in Washington on hearing the news that Maehara had resigned; and Toranosuke Katayama, LDP secretary general of the caucus in the House of Councillors, described Ozawa as a 'formidable' rival. Certainly Ozawa is expected to take a more aggressive stance than Maehara in Diet debates.

The first test of Ozawa's leadership comes soon -- a by-election in Chiba is to be called Tuesday -- which is probably too soon to make any headway after the recent adverse publicity. But thereafter it should be hoped by the Japanese public, regardless of party affiliation, that Ozawa can provide rigorous opposition to the LDP.

The DPJ, whatever its faults, is still Japan's leading opposition party. And the way it conducts itself has a real impact on the whole political system -- a system which the LDP has dominated since its creation in 1955. Japan is facing some difficult decisions in the next few years over its constitution, an aging population and indeed its very identity. It is therefore only healthy that the ruling party is effectively held to account. Thus, if Ozawa can unite the DPJ it will be good not only for the party, but also for Japanese democracy.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


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