Japan: Reflections on Ozawa from two former aides

Authors: Takashi Oka and Llewelyn Hughes

There are two narratives about Ichiro Ozawa, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). One is that he is a wizard at elections. This reputation was enhanced by his masterminding of the DPJ’s 2009 electoral strategy that helped bring about the first real change of government through the ballot box in sixty years.

The second is that, rather than being a politician of firm convictions, Ozawa is a machine politician animated by the desire to secure and retain power for its own sake. Investigations into alleged corruption fuel this narrative.

It is uncontroversial to note that politicians seek power; opposition parties have fewer tools to change policy. Beyond that, this second narrative is fundamentally wrong: Ozawa’s political career since the early 1990s has been driven by a political project, a project that cannot be reduced to a simple desire to get him and his party elected. Instead, it is about reshaping Japan’s institutions of governance.

What is our basis for making this claim? Collectively, we worked for Mr Ozawa for a total of seven years, in periods of both opposition and government, from 1994, just after the fall of the anti-LDP coalition government, to 2000, when he led the Liberal Party out of its coalition with the LDP. We sat in on scores of meetings, both public and private, with domestic and foreign audiences, both inside and outside Japan.

A number of these meetings undoubtedly had a direct effect on his, and his party’s, electoral chances. But for many this was unlikely. Further, regardless of the setting and political circumstances, what was common across these meetings was the political message. Instead of assuming that his words and actions are part of a plot for securing and retaining power, it’s better to assume that Ozawa means what he says. Yes, winning elections is undoubtedly important for him, but it remains a means to an end.

What Does Ozawa Want?

If we are right about Ozawa, then there are two questions to be answered. First, what does this political project consist of? And second, why does such misunderstanding persist about Ozawa’s nature? In his biography of Shigeru Yoshida, John Dower notes that Yoshida focused on ‘large matters: the desirable structure of the state, and the ideal role of the state in international affairs.’ This could have been written in a biography of Ozawa, and captures the essence of his thinking.

In his writings and conversations Ozawa has consistently focused on the need for individuals, and Japan as a nation, to shoulder greater responsibilities. This stems from his belief that Japan’s institutions of governance were well suited to the Cold War, but must now be fundamentally transformed if Japan is to prosper.

This may sound grandiloquent. But the institutional changes Ozawa has helped bring about, and others that the DPJ has proposed with his support, have important implications for the way interests are aggregated in Japan, and therefore for policy outcomes. He has especially supported two sets of institutional changes: electoral reform, and increasing the ability of elected officials to make decisions relative to Japan’s ministries and agencies.

Electoral reform has been promoted at different times for decades. But Ozawa was pivotal in creating the first non-LDP government for 38 years, and helping turning proposals into law. In doing so he succeeded where others failed, and it is now standard to attribute important reforms in Japan’s political economy to this change, from the financial sector to welfare and security policy, and of course to the change in government itself.

On the second, Ozawa is not the only proponent of increasing the power of politicians relative to bureaucratic officials. Former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro, for example, played a crucial role. But Ozawa has been advocating such changes longer than any other senior politician. He also views this project as unfinished, and it is now the focus of his energy.

Institutional changes he has helped put in place include the removal of bureaucrats from Diet deliberations and the introduction of state secretaries within the ministries. Both were implemented while Ozawa’s Liberals were in coalition with the LDP (1999-2000), and despite opposition from that party.

Extensions of these reforms are now supported by the DPJ leadership, and are included in its electoral manifesto. Increasing the number of political appointees within the ministries, for example, should lead to greater political participation in the deliberative councils, or shingikai, that are the engine rooms of Japan’s brand of corporatist decision-making. Those who have sat through many of these councils know they can be effective, but can also limit the pace and depth of policy change. Greater political participation should change this inherent incrementalism. Ozawa’s belief in the need for reorganising Japan’s postwar institutions extends to foreign policy. This does not mean he wavers on the importance of the US-Japan alliance. On the contrary, like Yoshida he views the alliance as indispensable to Japanese and regional security.

But, while believing that Japan’s strategic interests lie with the United States, Ozawa also does not think this precludes Japan from acting in its own interests in issues unrelated to the defence of Japan, even when they diverge from Washington’s position. Also, like Yoshida, Mr Ozawa does not see China as an ally, but neither does he understand it as Japan’s adversary.

How does he see his own role in this process? In Blueprint for a New Japan Ozawa notes his political heroes as Toshimichi Okubo, Hirobumi Ito, Takashi Hara, and Yoshida. This suggests two things about how Ozawa understands politics and his role in it. First, he believes in the ability of leaders to shape the political environment; for Ozawa, individuals can trump structure in determining outcomes. Second, he sees the role of leadership as crucial in crises. Furthermore, as Ozawa has been saying consistently for the past two decades, and as we heard him repeat many times, he believes Japan’s ongoing problems stem from a crisis of governance. He also thinks he has an important role in driving reform.

There are differences between Yoshida and Ozawa, of course. Yoshida was a diplomat for the majority of his career. Ozawa, on the other hand, entered parliament at the age of 27 by taking over his father’s seat. As Prime Minister, Yoshida focused on consolidating conservative rule. Ozawa, meanwhile, has never been Prime Minister, and has stated that his goal is to transform the system put in place by Yoshida. On a personal level, Yoshida is reported to have been voluble, while Ozawa can be taciturn. But an essential similarity between the two lies in their focus on Japan’s position within history, and the importance they ascribe to leadership in ensuring their country is able to meet the challenges they see their country facing.

Why the Misunderstanding?

If we are right about Ozawa, why does the alternative narrative—that Ozawa seeks power for its own sake—remain credible? There are four big reasons.

First, Ozawa has a poor relationship with the Japanese print media. He rarely conducts doorstops, or burasagari, which are a common element of the press interaction with politicians. In fact we remember this happening only once in our time at Liberal Party headquarters, the day after the news broke that then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had suffered a stroke. He also rarely conducts one-on-one interviews with the broadsheets. Opportunities for the press to question Ozawa are therefore limited to weekly press conferences. Further, there’s little doubt that Ozawa can come across as imperious at these.

Compounding this problem, as Katsuyuki Yakushiji of the Asahi Shimbun has noted, is the fact that Ozawa tends to disappear from public view at crucial political moments. We’ve never asked him why he does this, but it does mean that he is least available at the time when information is most sought by the press and public. This absence of information, and his lack of clarity in putting his views at such moments, inevitably raises questions about whether he is engaged in backroom dealing.

Second, as his former secretary and lawmaker Ishikawa Tomohiro, indicted on February 4, is quoted as saying, in Ozawa’s office the word of the boss is law. In fact, we think this is perhaps Ozawa’s central conundrum: while he is defined by his commitment to improving the quality of decision-making in Japan’s democracy, his organisational instincts and management of information reflect his political apprenticeship within the faction of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. This has worked to his detriment: Ozawa is often accused of strong-arming others, as was the case with Yoshida and Tanaka. He seldom explains his decisions, even to close friends. It can also lead to overreaching.

A prime example is Ozawa’s role in the Socialists’ decision to leave the government and enter into coalition with the LDP. He has since stated that allowing this to happen was the biggest mistake of his political career; if this had not occurred he thinks the LDP would have split within months. The tendency to over-reach doesn’t help build trust; the list of politicians who were once friends of Ozawa but are no longer so is a growing one, as we saw first-hand during our time at the New Frontier Party (NFP, or Shinshinto) and Liberal Party.

Third, Ozawa has spent periods of his post-LDP career involved in political manoeuvring, from working to establish the anti-LDP coalition government of Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993, to reaching agreement to enter into coalition with the LDP in 1998, to negotiating in 2007 with then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda over a possible coalition between the DPJ and the LDP. But our experience is that this is not indicative of a desire to seek power for its own sake, as his critics would have it. In fact almost the entire time he has been a politician of note Ozawa has been in opposition. Is it really surprising, then, that he has engaged in such manoeuvres in order to bring about a change of government? And, despite failures, has succeeded in this endeavour twice.

Further, the history is often misrepresented. To take one example, the most important reason for the breakup of the NFP was not Ozawa’s destructive tendencies. Rather, it was hedging by the Komeito. There is not space here to elaborate on all the important events, but it is worth mentioning a few. When the Komeito dissolved itself to join the NFP in 1994, it hedged its bets by keeping Upper House members and members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly out of the party. Further, in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election in June 1997 the Komeito did not follow through in its promise to support NFP candidates. As a result, all the Komeito candidates were elected with NFP support, while none of the NFP candidates were successful. Quite reasonably, given this, during the summer and autumn of 1997 Ozawa attempted to properly integrate the Komeito with the NFP. But in December 1997, after Ozawa was reelected President of the NFP, the Komeito decided to end its alliance with the NFP and withdraw its members from that party. The party then collapsed.

This hardly matches the narrative of Ozawa the destroyer. In truth, experiences like these suggest to us, perhaps rather mundanely for critics seeking some secret motive to Ozawa’s actions, that he is simply human: he formulates strategies designed to achieve his goals. But he also makes mistakes and is also taken in by others at times.

Finally, the most serious charge levelled at Ozawa is that of corruption. We have never been privy to how Mr Ozawa manages his finances, and have no information on the veracity of claims made against him. Further, we believe politicians should be transparent in how they manage political funds. But we think such accusations should be tempered by the fact that Ozawa has never been indicted, let alone found guilty, of corruption. Further, the public prosecutor’s office just completed an extraordinarily thorough investigation into his personal finances, including seven hours of questioning, and did not identify grounds for charging him with criminal behaviour.

Proponents of the Ozawa-as-corrupt narrative also point to his tutelage under Kakuei Tanaka and Shin Kanemaru. We obviously did not work for him during this time. But no evidence from this period establishes Ozawa’s criminality. The only case in which Ozawa has been found to have done wrong is the Recruit Cosmos Scandal of 1989, more than 20 years ago, or over half of Ozawa’s political life. But if we are to define Ozawa’s career by this episode, then surely it is incumbent upon us to tar Kiichi Miyazawa, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Keizo Obuchi, Masajuro Shiokawa, Yoshiro Mori, Kochi Kato, and others with the same brush. That this is not done suggests a double-standard at work. Further, if Ozawa’s goal were personal enrichment, it’s unlikely that he would champion campaign finance reform, as he has done for twenty years. Indeed, limiting corporate donations makes little sense if we try to understand Ozawa through the narrative created by his critics.

What Does This Mean for Now?

The investigation into Ozawa’s finances has undoubtedly damaged the DPJ’s popularity. But setting this aside, if we are right about Ozawa’s real motives, then what does this mean for policy?

It’s first worth noting that Ozawa does not run the DPJ; policies that come out of the party are not a perfect reflection of his will. In the short term, we think it’s likely that Ozawa will focus on the Upper House election. There is no contradiction between this and the argument we’ve made above. One constraint on the DPJ as it seeks to implement its electoral manifesto is its coalition with two minor parties: the Social Democrats, who are leftist, and the Japan New Party, which is conservative. If the DPJ wins an absolute majority in the House of Councillors in July, it will have more room to manoeuvre, even if it remains in coalition with those two smaller parties.

Also, Ozawa remains Secretary-General of the DPJ. This doesn’t mean he is absent from policy debates; he cannot fight an election without being involved in determining the policies upon which to run. And he can also over-reach in ways that frustrate his colleagues, as we noted above. But it does mean he is likely to focus with greater intensity the responsibilities of his formal role. This reflects his view that the cabinet should be the central organ of decision-making, as well as his long-standing criticism of the separation of party and government during the LDP’s period in power.

In the medium-term, our experience from the Liberal Party coalition with the LDP and Komeito suggests that our policy expectations for the DPJ should be set by what is in the electoral manifesto. Mr Ozawa places great weight on these documents as compacts with the voting public. Long negotiations in 1998-1999 over forming a coalition with the Obuchi government, for example, focused on reaching a detailed policy agreement, and Ozawa, Hirohisa Fujii, Yoshio Suzuki and others, spent their eighteen months in coalition fighting for implementation of the policies they and the LDP had agreed upon.

Certainly it is reasonable to point out that Ozawa’s views on the role of government have changed over time, increasingly emphasising the need to embed liberalisation in a set of social welfare institutions. This is undoubtedly good electoral politics. But it does not amount to evidence that he doesn’t believe what he says. If we look at the arc of politics in the United Kingdom, or indeed in the United States, Ozawa has, in fact, changed with the times. Also, we think a big reason Ozawa is interested in deregulation is that it implies reducing the power of the ministries and agencies to determine market outcomes. This means he will continue to champion this goal.

It’s also worth noting that Ozawa is willing to leave the detailed design of policy to others. For much of the 1990s, for example, he used former Bank of Japan official Yoshio Suzuki to help formulate economic policy. And when formulating security policy, he consulted with Hideaki Tamura, a retired Air Force general, and others. If there were a wide divergence between the DPJ’s legislative program and Ozawa’s views, this dynamic might have been different, but we don’t think this is the case. He is meticulous when he needs to be so, but he is also willing to leave considerable discretionary powers to trusted colleagues.

Finally, there is the question of what all this means given the recent investigation conducted by the prosecutor’s office. We have no special information about the particulars of the case. But if our assessment is right, then we think it’s unlikely that Ozawa will resign unless he determines that the political costs threaten the ability of the party to achieve its objectives. Our experience is that Ozawa is certainly a political animal, but it is politics with a purpose. He engages in politics to bring about a set of changes that he believes will increase liberty and make Japan more active internationally. Portrayals of Ozawa that forget this miss what is most essential about him.

This article is the first of a two part feature on Ichiro Ozawa, and first appeared here in the February issue of The Oriental Economist Report.

Takashi Oka worked for Ichiro Ozawa from 1994-1998, after a forty-year career in journalism with the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Llewelyn Hughes worked for Ozawa from 1997-2000, and is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.