Japan’s Secret Shogun

OSAKA – With the post-general election honeymoon over, the Japanese public has become increasingly aware that Ichiro Ozawa, Secretary-General of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is the puppet-master behind Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s cabinet.

Although he distances himself from formal policy-making within the executive branch, Ozawa in fact masterminds the entire legislative process, including the budget and appropriations. He has centralized the DPJ’s contacts with lobbyists at his office in the Diet (Parliament). He also exercises a total grip over the allocation of the DPJ’s state subsidy to individual DPJ legislators. Alas, Hatoyama controls only the narrow field of policy.

Ozawa’s political style is that of his mentor, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1972-1974), who became the longtime boss of the biggest faction of the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after his resignation following bribery charges. Together with other factions, Tanaka commanded a majority within the LDP and remained the party’s kingmaker and string-puller in successive LDP governments, perfecting the LDP’s quasi-social-democratic combination of export-led growth and pork-barrel wealth redistribution. Recently, Ozawa had a visit that he made to Tanaka’s tombstone televised, thereby holding himself up to the public as Tanaka’s heir.

With the LDP suffering from organizational sclerosis, Ozawa and some four dozen fellow legislators of the Tanaka faction broke away from the LDP in 1993 in a bid to build a two-party system. Since then, and until the DPJ’s victory in the 2008 upper-house election, Ozawa was almost always at the center of political battles against the LDP, building an effective political machine by making the most use of the art of patronage. In fact, Ozawa has established one of the largest financial war chests of any political party, using tactics reminiscent of Tanaka: three of Ozawa’s current and former political aides were recently arrested on charges of channeling kickbacks from civil engineering and construction firms into Ozawa’s fund-raising operation.