Ozawa underwhelms

It’s difficult to make sense of Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because, well, it just doesn’t make sense.

Only 51 of the so-called Ozawa children joined the ex-DPJ strongman when he defected on Monday, and two of them backtracked on the very same day, bringing the number of pro-Ozawa defectors to 49. Not only is this number not enough to deprive the DPJ of its majority in the Lower House, it’s also decreasing. Yesterday, one Ozawa defector repented to the DPJ while another declared that he will not be joining an Ozawa proto-party but will instead be an independent.

A report by the Japan Times mentioned that a second wave of pro-Ozawa defections could be looming, but with the initial Ozawa blitzkrieg this underwhelming, one can be forgiven for ruling such a scenario out. In fact, I can bet that the immediate concern in Ozawa’s office is not to encourage more defections from the DPJ but to prevent counter-defections.

The new Ozawa group, assuming the pro-Ozawa Kizuna Party joins it, may gain enough votes to introduce a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But having such a motion passed would be next to impossible, since that would require not only the support of all non-DPJ parties, including the Communists, but the defection of around twenty DPJ members as well.

This has actually been a victory for Prime Minister Noda. As Dr. Corey Wallace, an observer of Japanese politics, opined, Ozawa’s underwhelming defection has solved the Prime Minister’s dilemma on how to handle the rebels who voted against his tax hike pet project. With Ozawa in the party, Prime Minister Noda had been under pressure from both the DPJ and his tax hike partner, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to severely punish the rebels, which could have resulted in a bigger defection that could have compromised the DPJ’s majority. With Ozawa gone, the Prime Minister has been able to adopt a strategically lenient tack without appearing weak.

Moreover, with Ozawa gone and all the other party heavyweights co-opted, Prime Minister Noda is set to be re-elected party president this September, unless he makes a major gaffe in the next two months. Who knows, he might even be the first Japanese premier since Junichiro Koizumi to stay in office beyond the traditional one-year shelf life.

As for Ozawa, the prospects are not very promising. Without the DPJ’s protection, he would probably have to spend the rest of his time in the Diet answering questions from several committees investigating his past shenanigans. Perhaps more painfully, Ozawa, long regarded for his catalytic role in Japan’s political history, would probably descend into political irrelevance; meaning, like that blue-eyed shogun of post-war Japan, the shadow shogun would just have to fade away. To avoid this fate, Ozawa would have to build a viable political vehicle. If he can’t increase his group’s numbers, he would have to join forces with others.

A reunion with the LDP-Komeito bloc is extremely unlikely, since that erstwhile ruling coalition still has an axe to grind against Ozawa. The LDP would rather maneuver to have an LDP-DPJ grand coalition– which could be headed by an LDP prime minister, who knows?– than join hands with its two-time “destroyer.”  Ozawa would have to find another partner.

Perhaps the best chance for Ozawa to stay relevant is to strike a partnership with the charismatic Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the loose movement that he leads.

A Political Science professor from a leading university in Osaka, whom I met last week in an international conference on North Korea in Manila, says that Mayor Hashimoto’s real goal is to gain control of the Kantei, and that he sees the next election as a litmus test of sorts for this ambition. This probably explains his openness to the idea of a tie-up with Ozawa. Despite the Osaka Restoration Association’s pro-tax hike stance, for instance, the Mayor has criticized the Noda government’s “betrayal” of the DPJ manifesto, saying that Ozawa’s actions are “understandable.”

The problem is that Mayor Hashimoto’s bloc is a loose entente that is hardly monolithic. The Mayor’s partner, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, has made it clear that the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto, written by Ozawa, is incompatible with the Osaka Restoration Association’s ideals and that the Association should therefore not join Ozawa’s group. Another important player, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is planning to form a conservative party that will join a Hashimoto coalition, has a personal animosity with Ozawa. Building consensus with these political actors would be very challenging, to say the least.

Ozawa’s backroom skills will again be tested, perhaps for the last time.

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6 thoughts on “Ozawa underwhelms”

  1. It’s also difficult to make sense of this post. I mean, why did he defect from DPJ? Sorry dude but you should also be mindful of readers who may have not followed Japanese politics very well.

    1. Hi, Ichiro Ozawa is probably to Japan what Juan Ponce Enrile is to the Philippines. Only more powerful, perhaps by a mile. He’s great at backroom and money politics (perhaps in that respect he’s the Jose de Venecia of Japan), known for building and destroying parties, and has political acumen that many (including his enemies) regard as unmatched in Japan.

      He used to be a popular young politician and a rising star in the LDP, the powerful party that ruled Japan for about five decades after the war. Schooled by the notorious prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, he rose to be the youngest LDP secretary-general under Prime Minister Nakasone. LDP elders resented having had to kowtow to him, as he was very young, yet they had grudging respect for his skills. When one of his mentors, Shin Kanemaru, was linked in a corruption scandal, he sensed that LDP faction leaders would gang up on him, hence he bolted from the LDP, seriously destabilizing the said party.

      In the early 1990s, he successfully overthrew the LDP regime and built a broad coalition that ruled Japan for a short time. He published a book, called “Blueprint for the New Japan” around this time, which revealed a conservative vision for the country. This led to disagreements with left-wing coalition members that eventually paved the way for the LDP’s return to power. He then founded the Liberal Party and tried to return to the LDP, but young leaders including Junichiro Koizumi opposed his return. He then joined the DPJ in 2003.

      When Ozawa joined the DPJ, the party was suffering from an overwhelming defeat by the Koizumi-led LDP. The then DPJ president, Seiji Maehara, had to resign after it was revealed that the DPJ used fake e-mails to link the LDP to the Livedoor scandal. Ozawa was elected president of DPJ amidst these misfortune, but, using his great political skills, he led the DPJ to a resounding success, capturing the Upper House in 2006 (partly because Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was stupid), blocking all LDP legislations through the premierships of Fukuda and Aso, and, finally, forcing Aso to call for a snap elections in 2009, which the DPJ won by a landslide, overthrowing the LDP for the second time (hence I called him the LDP’s two-time destroyer).

      However, Ozawa had to resign as party president before the DPJ won the 2009 election due to a money scandal. But just the same, he ruled the DPJ and Japan through his puppet, Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama had to resign for incompetence regarding the handling of the transfer of a US base in Okinawa, and was replaced by Naoto Kan. Still, Ozawa led a faction of around 100 freshman lawmakers whom he mentored in 2009. These lawmakers are referred to as the Ozawa children. Ozawa eventually tried to challenge Kan in a DPJ presidential election, but he proved to be too unpopular and lost. He was suspended from the party following his indictment for corruption, but was quickly reinstated very recently after he was acquitted.

      In order to pay off Japan’s debts, Prime Minister Noda proposed an increase in sales tax. Ozawa opposed this ostensibly because it’s contrary to the 2009 DPJ manifesto that brought the party to power. Ozawa and his followers opposed Noda’s tax hike measure, forcing Noda to strike a deal with the opposition LDP. Supposedly, this disagreement on the tax hike measure is the reason for Ozawa’s defection.

  2. Very interesting Facebook comments from one of my professors who’s now pursuing advanced studies in Japan (I’m posting them here with his permission):

    You raised three good points in your post: 1. rationale for Ozawa’s action, 2. the magnitude of his move, and 3. political options for him.

    I agree with you that Ozawa’s move does not make sense if we assume that the best way for him to be prime minister is to remain with DPJ and try another shot at the party presidency in September.

    I agree with your observations also if we assume that he is thinking of coalescing with other parties to gain control of the majority in the Shūgiin or at the very least, simply force a vote of no-confidence against Noda.

    If he is thinking that he can lead a new party to victory in next year’s polls, considering that he does not really enjoy high popularity or favorable ratings from the public despite the fact that a survey in recent months showed over 50% opposition to any tax hike, indeed, his move would seem problematic.

    Now, I do not presume to know what goes in Mr. Ozawa’s mind. However, let us assume that he is thinking that by forcing the media, the public, and the ruling party’s attention on only one issue that for him is important for his agenda (like his actions in the early 1990s which led eventually to the collapse of the first non-LDP government in over 5 decades) he can dominate the news cycle or put a crack on the government’s foundation while at the same time enhancing his stature or image (whatever it is) and thereby his influence on particular negotiations, then, perhaps, it makes sense—at least for him.

    If we also assume that in Ozawa’s mind, he thought that the DPJ is a sinking ship (something he has tried to regain control of but failed in the last year) following public opposition to the government’s actions/plans (i.e. allowing for a restart of nuke plant operations) and dismay over its inability to address other major concerns for the people (US base in Okinawa, TEPCO nuke problem, etc.), that the anti-tax hike is another major nail on the DPJ coffin, and that there is lesser baggage in starting anew (new group, new possibilities for coalition, etc), then again, it makes sense to bolt out.

    Or maybe, Ozawa is just thrilled of a god-like stature—of being a Shiva and Brahma at the same time, destroying parties and creating new ones, in which case, such a move again would make perfect sense.

    However, of course, if these assumptions about Ozawa’s assumptions are correct, then it may mean the shadow shogun have some important rethinking to do. For one, thinking that a new name, a new party, a new coalition, and a dramatic walk out can change public perception of him is a problematic unless the Japanese electorate suffers also from political amnesia.

    Whatever it is that animated his mind to concoct such a plan, as I have said, is something that for him or his group make sense. What I am interested in however is the material condition and social formations that affected or brought about those assumptions. People think of Ozawa as a poster boy (okay, boy is not exactly the term LOL) for big money politics, but would you know JJ about his backers in Iwate or at the national level? I am not very familiar with it. The reason I asked is because when Junichiro Koizumi launched his plan to privatize the postal service, his slogan of reform and running against the LDP (which was weird for me at that time since he is from the LDP) masked his motive of politically killing his rivals by quashing their power base and wealth source.

    You mentioned about the fact that Hashimoto’s bloc is not monolithic and noted a valid point about a prospective Ozawa-Matsui-Ishihara alliance—that it will be very challenging to put them all in one basket so to speak and as such will test again Ozawa’s deal-making skills. I totally agree with you. However, a look at the LDP and the DPJ would actually reveal exactly the same thing. There was a foreign scholar last year who wrote that the DPJ is a party of parties—something that can also be said of the LDP and all catch-all parties around the world—noting that there exist various factions within the party and that each represents their own material interests (hence my point awhile ago about the backers and material condition).

    In case Ozawa’s group grows, I think they will try to run on the idea that the DPJ has broken many of its promises and that his group will deliver on those stuffs. But that is a big IF as of this moment.

    My reply:

    Sir, your assumptions of Ozawa’s assumptions are most likely correct. I should have remembered that analyzing a political event must not only be on the system and structure levels but also on the individual level and in this particular case trying to figure out what goes on in Ozawa’s mind is very important.

    Indeed, having created and destroyed parties before, leaving the DPJ probably makes sense for Ozawa. However, I think it would have been tactically better for him to wait for a while before bolting: The question of what punishment to apply for the pro-Ozawa rebels would have zapped Noda’s political capital, the LDP would have forced him to take a hard-line stance, and more people could have joined an Ozawa defection.

    I’d also like to add that we have to consider Ozawa’s ideology as well. As we can remember, Ozawa’s beef with Kan is also about the latter’s attempt to raise taxes, which cost the DPJ its majority in the Upper House. Ozawa has been consistently against hiking taxes even before he joined DPJ (encouraging spending and lessening taxes, as far as I know, are part of his “Blueprint for Japan” which he wrote twenty years ago after he bolted the LDP). As I’ve always said, Ozawa’s ideological pre-occupation has always been the dismantlement of the bureaucracy and the “Westminsterization” of Japan, and I can think of no other manifestation of Kasumigaseki’s influence on policy-making than this tax hike fetish. For Ozawa, who reasonably thinks that a lot can be done to improve finances without raising taxes, the tax hike measure is a mantra of the powerful Finance Ministry bureaucrats (both Kan and Noda were Finance Ministers), who have a stoic appreciation of a tax hike’s effect on ordinary people’s lives.

    Regarding Ozawa’s backers, I’m not sure about the Iwate clique, but his traditional allies at the national level (Kenji Yamaoka, Azuma Koshiishi) are mostly Japanese trapos. After all, Ozawa’s mentor had been Shin Kanemaru and, much earlier, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, the paragons of post-war corruption in Japan. But if we look at the so-called Ozawa children, who joined him in bolting the DPJ, we can see young, idealistic politicians who seem to really believe that abandoning the 2009 manifesto, the basis of their elections in the first place, is a betrayal of the DPJ’s social contract with the voters.

    It is true that the LDP and the DPJ are parties of parties. The LDP politicians are united by pork barrel politics, and the DPJ politicians, well, most Japanese think they’re no different now. It’s true that pragmatism does unite strange bedfellows in Japan. However, if we look at people like Ishihara, he’s an ideologue who might not appreciate the idea of pragmatic politics. Moreover, Matsui can argue that joining hands with Ozawa isn’t exactly pragmatic (he’s unpopular, and I don’t think his warchest of money is very formidable). But who knows, perhaps, like the DPJ in 2003, the Ishin no Kai might be willing to make trade-offs to make use of Ozawa’s excellent strategies.

    A strictly Ozawa group has no chance of growing, in my opinion. I think Ozawa might be under-estimating his unpopularity with the public. Hashimoto and others should think twice before accepting Ozawa. He may have his backroom skills and political strategies to offer, but these may all be poisoned chalice. Hashimoto’s movement is popular because it’s packaged as the third force, the alternative to the incompetent DPJ and the corrupt LDP. But Ozawa would spoil this packaging, unless he undergoes a major, major make-over.

  3. I thank you Mr. Nutbox and your Professor for this captivating debate. I think there is nothing to add to this analysis for now. That’s why I would only like to share my impression in quality of gaikokujin passionate in Japan and Japanese politics.

    In the past, I tried to find a politician that could vaguely resemble to Ozawa in my national landscape (Italy). The most suitable of them for an Italian counterpart could have been Andreotti, former leader of the dead and buried Christian Democratic Party, which ruled more or less from the post-war period to the early 1990s. Andreotti was a full-fledged politician able to establish compromises and channel the interests of many different actors (such as his party, the Italians, the Church and the Mafia) into a similar objective, the economic growth. Well, his little game called “Italian State” ended with the advent of large political scandals and subsequent expurgation (or more specifically depuration in this case). Andreotti has never been found guilty, but after a while he lost his total control over Italian politics fading gradually away. I thought he could be an Italian Ozawa, but I found to be wrong.

    In fact, I thought Ozawa would have ended his career as “Puppet Master” in occasion on the tricky situation of “Japan’s defeat of 1990”, after his “affair” or risky deal with the Koumeitou and Tokyo’s gubernatorial election. Instead of giving up, he always re-invented himself and amongst all the difficulties he succeeded in keeping his pivotal position, more or less. Ozawa’s attitude was kind of inspiring: his ability to gain and gain again (sorry for the cacophony) his place in Japan’s politics appeared to me as a “no matter what I can do it”. I liked him very much… but now I feel I can’t clearly make up my mind about him. In the first place, I think about Karel van Wolferen’s opinion over Ozawa considered as a victim of a “media assassination”. On the other hand, though, I agree with you, Mr. Nutbox, when you suggest the image of a shadow shogun unwilling to fade away. Unfortunately, this stubbornness reminds me Berlusconi’s attitude when he didn’t want to leave his rotten premiership. Thinking that you are essential, it does not me you really are.

    My final questions are related to Ozawa as human being:

    – What does it bring Ozawa to start again with a new project? Has he something concrete and positive to offer for the sake of Japan, or has he simply become a man, slave of his own lust for power? And, will Japan’s politics be able to go fairly on without the dynamic presence of Ozawa?
    Best Regards

    1. Sir, I’ve read a few of Mr. van Wolferen’s views on Mr. Ozawa, the DPJ, and his analysis of Japan’s socio-political-economy. I actually agree with his framing of Japanese politics as a battle of hegemony between the Iron Triangle Establishment (LDP, keiretsu, Kasumigaseki) and those who want reforms. I also agree that Mr. Ozawa has been a victim of political assassination. That doesn’t mean that he’s a political saint, of course. Indeed, the reason why Mr. Ozawa is an enigma is because he is full of contradictions: An ideologue, he is a reformist at heart, but he also is very realist with how he keeps and dispense power. He is a reformist and a quintessential “dirty politician” at the same time.

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