Japan’s Ozawa Ichiro – the power of one

Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW@ADFA

Ozawa Ichiro’s current travails over a money politics scandal may have an upside for the Hatoyama government. It may serve to undermine Ozawa’s growing influence over government policy.

As time has gone by, it is clear that Ozawa’s influence over the  Hatoyama administration has expanded. He has concentrated the policy input of the party into his own hands, acted as the main channel from the backbench to the political executive, and intervened in policymaking at crucial junctures – in areas of both domestic as well as foreign policy.

What makes these developments all the more ironic is that Ozawa has long prescribed how the Japanese policymaking system should be reformed to exclude the ruling party – by eliminating the policymaking influence of politicians holding party, not government positions.

Ozawa’s thinking on how the policymaking process should be reformed was first enunciated internationally in his book A Blueprint for New Japan: The Rethinking of a Nation (Kodansha International 1994). Chapter 5 is titled ‘Integrating the Ruling Party and Cabinet’ and argues for the need to strengthen the prime minister and cabinet along British parliamentary cabinet lines, where the executive and legislative branches are merged. Principle 2 of ‘The Vision of Government in a Hatoyama Administration’ in the 2009 manifesto states: ‘From a two-track system in which policy-making proceeds in parallel in government and in the ruling party, to a unitary system of Cabinet-centred policy-making’.

The idea to assign 100 or more Diet members from the DPJ to government ministries as ministers, senior vice-ministers, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial assistants also originated with Ozawa. In his Blueprint book, he advocated sending 150-160 Diet members into government administration. The aim of the reform is to assert political leadership over the bureaucracy and to provide a venue for non-cabinet parliamentary members of the DPJ to participate in policymaking. Holding such positions would give DPJ Diet members an opportunity to hone their policy skills in lieu of the Policy Affairs Research Council (PARC), and enable the political executive to keep the party, as well as the bureaucracy, firmly under its control.

Although it is difficult to establish whether Ozawa has single-handedly been acting as a policy veto point in the same way that the LDP’s powerful PARC committees used to, the perception is that Ozawa is wielding power across a whole range of spheres that reach well beyond his assigned functions as DPJ Secretary-General. If it continues, it will undermine the very institutional reforms of the policymaking process that the government is trying to introduce and that Ozawa has long advocated.

If Ozawa seriously believed in Westminstering Japan, he should have taken a senior role in the cabinet, and used that as his institutional base, rather than perpetuating his extra-cabinet role in policymaking and using his personal political influence over other DPJ Diet members as a so-called ‘shadow shogun’.

As it is, scandal has once more overtaken Ozawa and will decisively crimp his ambitions, weakening his standing amongst DPJ Diet members as well as amongst the Japanese public at large. The situation is so serious that he has already handed over his full-time duties as DPJ secretary general to Azumi Koshiishi, DPJ leader in the Upper House. Dealing with the scandal will absorb Ozawa full-time. We may be seeing the final act in the long, brilliant career of a fatally flawed Japanese politician.

The major downside of the Ozawa scandal for the Hatoyama administration is, of course, loss of popularity going into an Upper House election in July. The scandal has already cast a long shadow over the DPJ in the new Diet session that began on 18th January. To make matters worse, the DPJ can hardly deploy Ozawa in the area in which he has made the greatest contribution to the party up to now – winning elections. Ozawa has gone from a big plus to a big minus as an electoral asset.

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