Ben Hills

In bunraku, the colourful and highly stylised classical Japanese puppet-theatre, the most important player on the stage is supposed never to allow himself to be seen.

While the audience is dazzled by the clang and conflict of 17th-century samurai dramas, the chant of the balladeers and the twanging of the shamisen, the puppeteer remains invisible.

A sinister figure, robed and hooded, he is called kurogo – the man in black.

In the satellite TV soapie of Japan’s late-20th-century political epic, the same ancient protocol applies. Prime ministers come and go, governments rise and fall, political parties are born, divide and disappear – but the master manipulator is seen only fleetingly at the edges of public events before he disappears back into the blackness.

Even the name of the current puppet-master is only whispered.

When Tomiichi Murayama, the man with the famous prawn-head eyebrows who leads the Social Democratic Party, stormed out of the coalition government in a rage this week, he referred obliquely to “the tactics of a certain person”. One of his deputies has taken to referring coyly to “fascist tendencies”.

Japan’s prince of darkness is, of course, none other than Mr Ichiro Ozawa, 52 next month, who holds not even the humblest post in the Government – his only official title is secretary-general of Shinseito, the Japan Renewal Party, just one of the seven parties which made up the coalition that has ruled Japan for the past eight months.

But do not let the lack of formal titles deceive you. It is the brawny, hard-driving Mr Ozawa – a man who thinks nothing of polishing off two bottles of sake at a sitting, and smoked five packets of Parliament cigarettes a day until he had a heart attack a couple of years ago – who has been calling the shots.

He is variously described (according to the political sympathies of the commentator) as the kingmaker of the coalition, the godfather of money politics, and most recently, in a New York Times review of his millionselling book with the ungainly title, Japan Remodelling Plan, as the most interesting and important politician the country has produced since World War II.

It was Mr Ozawa who brought down the Liberal Democratic Party, which his politician father had helped found in 1955 and which had ruled Japan for the longest unbroken period of any democracy. He defected last June, splitting the party’s largest faction and taking 30 of his loyal footsoldiers with him.

It was Mr Ozawa who cobbled together the unlikely coalition – it ranges from Social Democrats, who want to cuddle up to Stalinist North Korea, to ex-LDP shellbacks, to followers of a Buddhist “lay religion” – which took over the government.

And it was Mr Ozawa who blew apart that coalition this week in what may yet prove the political blunder that finally destroys him.

No-one seriously doubts that it will be Mr Ozawa who dictates terms to the new minority Government of Mr Tsutomu Hata, who was finally sworn in as Prime Minister on Thursday – least of all Mr Hata himself, the easygoing, avuncular LDP old-timer who has been thrust into the spotlight as the acceptable face of Ozawa-ism. “I am merely the actor – he is the playwright,” Mr Hata once said.

This is a Japanese political convention older even than bunraku. Mr Ozawa is just the latest in a long line of “shadow shoguns” who exercised the real power from feudal times, while prime ministers pirouetted like models on the catwalk of government. His political masters were three of the most respected, feared and ultimately reviled of the postwar puppetmasters, all of them in the end destroyed by corruption: Kakuei Tanaka, Noboru Takeshita and Shin Kanemaru.

Mr Ozawa continues that dark lineage. His first puppet, when he pulled the strings at the LDP, was Mr Toshiki Kaifu, the nominal prime minister.

“He was easy to manipulate but difficult to look after,” he commented when Mr Kaifu finally fell.

Mr Hata’s weak and vacillating predecessor, Mr Morihiro Hosokawa, owed the few modest successes he can claim to Mr Ozawa – and collapsed when that support was withdrawn.

AROUND Nagatacho, the Diet precinct dominated by the grey pyramid-topped blockhouse of Japan’s parliament building, his nickname is “iron arm” and he is more feared than admired – not a trait that will help the coalition-building he has ahead of him. He stormed from a meeting with Cabinet Secretary Masayoshi Takemura shouting “off with his head”. A few weeks later Mr Takemura resigned and his Sakigake (New Harbinger) party became the first to pull out of the coalition.

With the public, in spite of his recent attempts to soften his image with morning chat-show appearances, Mr Ozawa is poison – an opinion poll recently placed him a distant last as preferred leader, with a popularity rating of just 2.4 per cent. His relationship with the media has not helped either – he bans news organisations that dare to criticise him and periodically sulks and refuses to hold press conferences for weeks on end.

Now it is Mr Hata’s turn on the string. Keeping his government alive for more than a few months will take every bit of political capital Mr Ozawa has accumulated in a lifetime of power. The Ozawa/Hata Government has no majority in either house of Parliament, no popular mandate and no program beyond the immediate imperative of getting a Budget passed before Japan’s national public works program grinds to a halt.

In these circumstances, you can forget about the promises of reform which sparkled so brightly just last summer. This government will be focused on survival – it will not have the authority to carry through popular reforms such as deregulating Japan’s stifling bureaucracy (ironically, a favourite target of Mr Ozawa’s wrath), let alone the radical restructuring of Japan’s taxation system which is essential to boost domestic demand and provide for the “grey generation” just over the horizon of the next century.

If he can be said to have any philosophy beyond his gluttony for power, Mr Ozawa professes to believe in turning Japan into a “normal country” which, in his book, means deregulation, political reform, and a transformation into an international power commensurate with its economic strength.

It was he, for instance, who put together the coalition that enabled a reluctant Japan to provide trillions of yen, if no men, for the Gulf War.

DREAM on. Before it can even think about political change on this scale, which the never-understated Mr Ozawa compares with the magnitude of the Meiji restoration, this motley minority government has to remain in power. The consensus in Japan’s media, bureaucracy, and business is that its use-by date is no more than a few months away.

If this government is to last longer, it will be because Mr Ozawa has learnt his lessons well – and not those he gleaned from Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was his bedside reading last year. His favourite aphorism came from Mr Tanaka: “Politics comes from power. Power means numbers. Numbers depend on money.”

But most do not believe even Mr Ozawa – who dragged the 1990 election out of the fire for the LDP, largely by extracting the extraordinary sum of $A330 million from Japan’s Keidanren business federation – commands this sort of support any more. Even his rich allies in the Komeito (Clean Government) Party- who claim the support of 10 million followers of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement – have not formally joined his new parliamentary alliance.

The last thing Mr Ozawa wants just now is an election – in spite of the fact that his brilliant campaigning for the LDP earned him the sobriquet senkyo no kamisama, “god of elections”. If the LDP and its new ally in opposition, the SDP, force an election this summer, it will be held under the old multi-member constituency system which would favour them over the coalition. Another hung parliament is likely, a return to an LDP government possible.

Japan Inc, facing a damaging trade war with the US, is fed up with this instability, which it fears will prolong the recession. Japan’s allies, used to thinking of it as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, are alarmed, particularly over the North Korean nuclear threat. And its citizens feel bewildered and betrayed – the reform they were promised has been hijacked, once again, by the grubby politicians.

The only people laughing are the mandarins in their offices in Kasimingaseki – Japan’s Whitehall – who have been smirking over their sake in the exclusive restaurants they frequent.

The elected politicians who vowed to break their hold on power have, instead, reaffirmed their arrogant belief that they alone are fit to run the country.

On the stage of the Diet, the bunraku drama plays out, Act 62, Scene 2, of postwar governments. The puppets enter and depart; the chorus rises and falls; the audience fidgets and rustles sweet-wrappers as it waits for the next move of kurogo, the man in black.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 30 April 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 28
Word count: 1628
Keywords: Biography Ichiro Ozawa
Caption: Puppets and the master …
1. former Prime Ministers Hosokawa
2. Kaifu
3. Mr Ozawa.
4. Newcomer to the string … Prime Minister Hata.