Japan's Agent of Change Disappears

Ichiro Ozawa, who announced his resignation as leader of Japan's main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP), was always a strange figure to be an agent of change. He had no special charisma, was reputedly a poor speaker and not even well liked in his party or the public at large.

He espoused no particular radical views. Indeed, on most topics he was basically conservative. His book Blue Print for New Japan expresses mostly conventional conservative views about the future of Japan as a "normal nation", which is usually nationalist code for jettisoning the country's pacifistic constitution.

Ozawa did not come seemingly out of nowhere, like US President Barack Obama. He was in fact a longtime Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) pol, who had been a major political figure in Japan for more than 20 years.

He was a protégé of ex-prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, Mister "money man" himself", who often personified what critics felt was wrong about Japanese politics, and it didn't seem so out of character when last March his secretary, Takanori Okuda, was indicted for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions.

When Ozawa does speak, he often speaks in riddles. Earlier this year he casually suggested that Japan could depend solely on the U.S. Seventh fleet for protection, presumably eliminating the need for any other American bases. He never elaborated on this, and it gave the LDP a small opening to criticize him, until the scandal of Okuda's arrest gave them a much bigger cudgel.

He does not seem to have been motivated by the pursuit of personal power – at least not in a conventional sense. As secretary-general of the governing party 20 years ago, it is almost inconceivable that he would not have taken a turn as an LDP prime minister, becoming yet another quickly forgotten leader, like Toshiki Kaifu.

But for more than 20 years Ozawa has had one fixed idea, one overriding goal, and that is to change the way politics works in Japan. By that he meant reducing the inordinate power vested in the civil service, a policy in which he finds wide spread support not only in his party but with the public at large.

Another ideal was to end Japan's status as virtually the only one-party democracy in the developed world, the one democracy that has never done what India has done, what Taiwan has done, what South Korea has done - that is, to throw the rascals out. He wanted Japan to become a normal democracy where parties alternate in and out of power.

The irony is that to accomplish these goals, he used mostly behind-the-scenes parliamentary maneuvers. Ozawa was the consummate back-room boy. In 1993 he fomented a vote of no confidence in the government of former prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa that led to a very short non-LDP government.

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What followed were several years of confusion as a dozen new parties rose or changed their names or platforms. The political opposition was like an unstable radioactive atom throwing off members like so many free-flying electrons.

Finally, the opposition settled under the rubric of the Democratic Party of Japan in 1996. In the decade that followed it has turned itself into a Western-style opposition party, even to naming a shadow cabinet. It worked out policies and an organization toward that day when it would have a decent shot at taking over the reins of government.

That chance came from Ozawa's great triumph came in July, 2007, when he helped the DJP to a major victory in the election for the House of Councilors, the upper house in Japan's bicameral parliament. He has used this majority in that body to frustrate the last two LDP premiers, especially Yasuo Fukuda, who resigned last September.

That victory, plus the stumbling of Fukuda' successor as prime minister, Taro Aso, encouraged the opposition to believe that it had a fair chance to repeat the success when en election is held for the more powerful House of Representatives, or lower house. An election must be held by autumn, when the Diet's term expires.

That prospect, of course, dimmed considerably when news broke of the arrest of Ozawa's secretary in March. Ozawa held on stubbornly in the face of consistent opinion polls that showed the public overwhelmingly opposed to his staying on as leader.

That decision was unpopular with the party's leadership, which never came out in full-throated support of their embattled leader. But then Ozawa never was very popular, or very well trusted, among them, He was not one of the DJP's original founders. He brought the tiny Liberal Party that he then headed over to the DJP only after merger talks with the LDP failed.

Now the party must choose a new leader and hope that it is not too late to undo the damage caused in the past two months (which have seen Aso's popularity slowly improve). Yet most of the DJP party leaders look like pigmies alongside Ozawa, and many of them carry their own baggage. The man most likely to succeed Ozawa (and become prime minister if the DJP wins) is Katsuya Okada, even though it was Okada who presided over the DJP's election debacle in 2005.

That is a reminder that the opposition still has a major mountain to climb whatever the election date because of the LDP's huge electoral margin. The governing party could lose as many as 60 seats in the 480-seat lower house and still have a majority to form a government. (Although it would no longer have the supermajority needed to override upper house votes.)

So, if the opposition does pull off a miracle and win the next general election, it won't be because the Japanese turned to a messianic figure of "hope". It won't be because the public is especially attracted to the opposition's program. No, if the opposition wins the next election, it will be because, in Confucian terms, the long-ruling LDP has lost the Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule.