To his detractors, Ichiro Ozawa represents the worst of Japanese politics. Self-righteous, corrupt, a power-hungry political operator, “shadow shogun.” He has been called all these things, as well as “the destroyer” for the way he has created and wrecked three parties in two decades. Three months ago, he resigned from his post as secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan, which he helped lead to victory in last year’s historic elections, amid a scandal over finances. His resignation coincided with the downfall of Yukio Hatoyama, the fourth prime minister to step down in four years. Small wonder, then, that he is not well liked in some DPJ corners, and even less so among the public. But now Ozawa is running against the current prime minister, Naoto Kan—in office for all of 14 weeks—for the party leadership. If he wins, he would assume the top job in government, and may well turn out to be precisely what Japan needs right now.
Ozawa is far from perfect. But for all the flak he gets, the fact remains that Ozawa is the nation’s most visionary politician. Shortly after he left the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, he reformed the electoral process to lay the groundwork for transforming Japan into a two-party state. He was the driving force behind breaking Japan’s single-party rule twice—first when he bolted from the LDP in 1993 and again in last year’s elections. And as early as 1993 he published his Blueprint for a New Japan—a bestseller—in which he called on his nation to embrace freedom and respect for the individual in ways its collective culture never has. He envisioned shifting power from the bureaucracy, which has defended a stagnant status quo for decades, to elected officials, who would be held more accountable to voters. He called for an end to wasteful government spending—a hallmark of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party—in favor of corporate tax cuts to put money in the people’s pockets. He urged individuals to stand up and change Japan, and for Japan to stand up and play a more active role in world affairs.
Compare all this with Kan’s laughably uninspiring vision. He wants to build a “society with minimal unhappiness,” and has not had much luck with that. He has flip-flopped on almost everything he once stood for—including his position on taxes, as well as reducing the U.S. military’s footprint on Okinawa. After losing the July upper-house elections, the ruling party is unable to pass legislation of any sort. Some analysts predict that even if Kan were reelected, he would last only until next spring, when he needs to pass the budget for the next fiscal year. His proposed 920 billion-yen stimulus is less than half the size of Ozawa’s. When a rapid rise in the value of the yen battered Japan’s exports last month, Kan’s tepid response did nothing to stem the damage. But when Ozawa promised to “intervene in the market,” the yen immediately started to fall. That threat is debatable as a policy move, but it is clear evidence that Ozawa is taken more seriously than the man who purports to be in charge.
Many of Ozawa’s ideas have been overshadowed by his poor image. He intimidates and berates journalists, and rarely makes TV appearances, which makes him seem mean and secretive. History doesn’t help either. Ozawa was a loyal lieutenant to Kakuei Tanaka, the godfather of LDP machine politics. Tanaka was felled in 1974 by a money scandal, but Ozawa stuck by him, so when three of Ozawa’s aides were arrested this year for misreporting political funds, the media drew parallels between him and his political master. He also maintains an unusually strong grip on junior members of the party. He told a crowd of freshmen DPJ politicians last year that their job is “to get reelected” and instructed underlings to undergo a political boot camp in which senior DPJ pols drilled them on the basics of politics—how to deal with reporters and how to greet senior lawmakers, and even warning them not to send text messages during meetings in Parliament. Attendance was mandatory—anyone who skipped a session was punished. He prohibited backbenchers from crafting legislation.
But this kind of hardball gets results. When he became DPJ president in 2006, he transformed it from an entity once mocked as amateurish into a formidable opponent to the LDP. But now the DPJ is in a tight spot. It lacks enough votes in the lower house to override upper-house opposition to its legislation. Ozawa is seen as the only one who can break that deadlock. So for a country that’s stagnating, the only real option may be a leader with the clout to force change.