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Some Ask if Ozawa Is the Force That Japan Needs

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Some Ask if Ozawa Is the Force That Japan Needs

Published: September 11, 2010

Shadow shogun, scandal-tainted party boss, insider turned rebel, a leader who can say no to Washington — Ichiro Ozawa has been called many things in his four decades in politics.

Now, as Mr. Ozawa, the former head of Japan’s governing Democratic Party and its widely acknowledged power broker, begins what might be the final maneuver in a turbulent and often chameleon-like career, he is proving as powerful and divisive a figure as ever.

Last week, Mr. Ozawa, 68, announced that he would challenge the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, to become the party’s president, and thus prime minister. Mr. Ozawa vowed to restore the party to its original promises of building a more accountable political system capable of leading Japan out of its current drift.

“Last year’s election victory was about creating politics run by elected politicians,” Mr. Ozawa said in announcing his bid. “If this attempt should fail, full-fledged democracy will never take root in Japan.”

The internal party vote, to be held on Tuesday, now appears too close to call, with some predicting that it could end up splitting the party. Mr. Ozawa’s bid was greeted with surprise and even incredulity by many in Japan, where he has been portrayed in the major news media as a corrupt, Rasputin-like figure.

But as always, there is another side to Mr. Ozawa. He is widely credited with using his considerable, if perhaps unsavory, political skills to engineer the Democrats’ landslide election victory last year, which ended more than a half-century of virtual one-party leadership by the Liberal Democrats and seemed to usher in an era of more competitive democracy.

But the Democrats’ drive to open up Japan’s political system has stalled, prompting a question among Japan’s feisty weekly magazines, Internet chat rooms and even dinner party conversations that can seem to carry the tinge of subversion in this conformist country: Is Mr. Ozawa the forceful and capable leader so hungrily sought by citizens of this ailing economic giant, which has suffered all too many colorless, short-lived and altogether forgettable prime ministers?

“Ozawa is the person Japan’s vested interests would least like to see become prime minister,” said Kensuke Watanabe, the author of two political biographies of Mr. Ozawa. “That is because they fear him the most.”

Public opinion appears split, perhaps along generational lines. Recent polls in major newspapers show that voters support Mr. Kan by a ratio of four to one, but online questionnaires at news sites, which may reach younger people, show Mr. Ozawa ahead by the same ratio.

Political experts are also divided. An old-school backroom operator whose face seems frozen in a perpetual frown, Mr. Ozawa lacks the charisma of Japan’s last popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down four years ago. But at the same time, Mr. Ozawa has repeatedly proved that he is as much a master of the complex and arcane world of Japanese politics as he is of his favorite pastime: go, the ancient Asian game of strategy.

He has also shown a decisiveness that Japan’s recent leaders have lacked. In a party that has all too often seemed rudderless, he has repeatedly interceded on difficult decisions, like whether to abolish highway tolls or the gasoline tax.

“Japan must have a system where politicians take responsibility and make policy decisions,” he said when he announced his candidacy.

In a debate with Mr. Kan this month, Mr. Ozawa blamed the party’s lack of direction for the Democrats’ poor showing in midterm elections two months ago. He also accused Mr. Kan of being under the thumb of the nation’s elite central ministries, which have long run Japan and whose powers the Democrats had vowed to curtail.

Mr. Kan, a former civic activist who has excluded Mr. Ozawa and allies from his three-month-old government, said Japan must move beyond the machine-style politics represented by Mr. Ozawa, who was forced to step down as party secretary general in June partly because of a series of political financing scandals.

“Japan must escape from its old political ways,” Mr. Kan said.

Indeed, this is another question that has hounded Mr. Ozawa: is he a holdout from Japan’s political past or a harbinger of its political future?

A second-generation lawmaker from the northern rice-growing region of Iwate, Mr. Ozawa was a rising star in the Liberal Democratic Party, or L.D.P., and a protégé of party bosses like Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s original shadow shogun. Then, in 1993, after the party refused to enact electoral reforms that he championed, Mr. Ozawa and his allies bolted, helping create a brief-lived opposition government.

After that coalition unraveled, Mr. Ozawa spent the next two decades trying to build a viable alternative party. Yet he achieved this by borrowing liberally from the Liberal Democrats’ own playbook. During last year’s election, he pried away formerly diehard L.D.P. supporters like doctors and farmers with promises of generous handouts. Mr. Ozawa has also shared the L.D.P.’s penchant for creating factions, surrounding himself with a group of some 150 mostly novice Democratic lawmakers who have been dubbed “Ozawa’s children.”

Such contradictions have helped make Mr. Ozawa an enigmatic figure, even among Japanese. His utterances range from the tortuously convoluted to the gruffly ineloquent. Fellow Democrats call him gifted and ambitious, but with a nasty tendency to steamroll even supporters who disagree with him.

“He is a fearsome politician who makes the bureaucrats quake in their boots,” said Kozo Watanabe, a senior Democratic lawmaker. “But he also scares away his friends.”

Critics say this stubborn ambition may also lie behind his decision to challenge Mr. Kan at a time when the public seems likely to frown on another change at the top, having gone through six prime ministers in four years. Supporters say Mr. Ozawa may have decided that this was his last chance, given his declining popularity and questions about his health after having heart problems several years ago. Mr. Ozawa has referred to his candidacy as “my last service.”

If he wins, one question will be how he handles Tokyo’s crucial security relationship with Washington, its longtime protector. He has called for Japan to become a “normal nation” that can speak its mind to the United States and also take a more assertive role overseas.

However, those who know Mr. Ozawa say his real goal is to challenge not Washington but the powerful bureaucrats at the central ministries. This has led to bitter clashes with Japan’s permanent government, including the public prosecutors, who have pursued seemingly unending investigations into Mr. Ozawa’s political finances in recent years.

While Mr. Ozawa has promised to cooperate with prosecutors if he becomes prime minister, he has also criticized them as being politically motivated. The fact that prosecutors have never charged Mr. Ozawa with a crime, and that they have also failed to pursue leading Liberal Democratic lawmakers who have also been implicated in campaign finance scandals, has led many Japanese to agree with him.

Ultimately, political experts say, the biggest concern about Mr. Ozawa is that he keeps his cards so close to his chest that it is not clear what he really stands for, beyond broad pledges of political change. This leads some to worry that if he does become prime minister, he will just end up remaking the Democrats in the image of a traditional, Liberal Democrat-style political machine.

“He will go down in history as the hero who destroyed the L.D.P.,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University who has worked with Mr. Ozawa. “But will he just try to replace it with new one-party rule by the Democratic Party?”

<The New York Times>,2010/09/12