Powerful Japanese politician Ozawa flexes his muscles as party leader falters

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 10, 2010

TOKYO -- Shrewd, stern and baggy-eyed, Ichiro Ozawa has prowled the back rooms of power in Tokyo for more than four decades. Last year, he masterminded an election victory that crushed the political party that ruled Japan for nearly half a century.

Yet after the historic vote, as his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power, Ozawa chose not to join the government. Instead, he served officially as his party's secretary general and unofficially as its all-powerful political wizard. The local press dubbed him the "shadow shogun."

Now, with the new government stumbling, its poll numbers sinking and another national election looming, Ozawa, 67, has stepped out of the shadows and is beginning to wave his wand.

He played a major role in undermining Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, who resigned last week. Ozawa has also handed down directives on social spending and highways toll rates to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose leadership ability he has reportedly criticized in private.

In a remarkable display of foreign-policy chutzpah, Ozawa last month led a 645-member, five-airplane pilgrimage of lawmakers and other leaders on a visit to Beijing, where he met with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.

The DJP has questioned the long-held traditional alliance between Japan and the United States, with Hatoyama so far refusing to follow through on relocation of a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa sought by Washington.

In Washington, Ozawa is viewed with a mixture of alarm and understanding. Some in the Obama administration portray him as a Rasputin-like character plotting to push Japan away from the United States. Others understand him as an old-time pol, more interested in winning elections than in international affairs. Ozawa, they recall, was a mastermind behind the defeat of the once powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993. That victory proved short-lived, though, when Ozawa botched the handling of a coalition government.

Asked to explain Ozawa's new role in governing Japan, the head of the DPJ's international department, Yukihisa Fujita, said in a statement: "Government policies are overseen by the cabinet led by prime minister Hatoyama, and party affairs by the secretary general Ozawa. There is a division of labor with close cooperation and leadership between the two."

But Japan's two most influential newspapers -- which are not friendly with the new government -- have detected a new form of two-headed rule. The Yomiuri newspaper calls it "dual-governance." The Asahi suggests "there is another prime minister outside the cabinet."

Japan's election schedule virtually guarantees that Ozawa's relative influence will expand into mid-summer, when there is a vote for the upper house of parliament. The DPJ needs to gain just seven seats in that 242-member chamber to win a majority, which would give it commanding control over parliament for several years. The party already dominates the lower house, and analysts here agree that Ozawa is likely to lead his party to another sizable win.

There is, however, a legal roadblock confronting the ever-more-visible DPJ shogun. The Tokyo prosecutor's office wants to question Ozawa about $4.31 million from his political fund that was used to buy real estate in Tokyo six years ago. Ozawa agreed this week to meet with prosecutors, although the seriousness of his legal difficulties over the unreported land purchase is not yet clear.

The investigation is an echo of a separate fundraising investigation that last year forced Ozawa to resign as head of the DPJ and forfeit his chance of becoming prime minister. In that case, as in the current one, Ozawa said his aides acted without his knowledge.

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