Ben Hills

Buying reform from him would be like buying wart medicine from a toad. Thus the acerbic reaction from one of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party barons last summer when a ragtag eight-party coalition ousted the LDP from power after 38 years of unbroken rule. 

His remarks were aimed not at the nominal prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, but at the man who stitched together the historic alliance and who was to hold the real power in Japan for the following 10 months – the “shadow shogun”, Ichiro Ozawa.

Short-tempered, sharp-tongued and built like a boxer, the 52-year-old son of a rickshaw-man is the most feared, hated and mistrusted person in contemporary Japanese politics. His personality is the defining issue.

An overwhelming majority of MPs now oppose his “fascist tendencies”, as they put it. His coalition parties reject a merger they fear would put them under his thumb. As for the public, the latest polling shows Ozawa with a pitiful 4 per cent popularity rating, barely in front of the Communist leader

It is ironic that now, when for the first time in his 25-year career in the backrooms of Japanese politics he no longer has any influence in government, Ozawa’s views are attracting international attention with the publication in English of his 1993 bestseller, Blueprint for a New Japan.

The “ultimate insider”, as he is described in one forward, is already a rather pathetic outsider. The translation was published just a few weeks after Ozawa destroyed the coalition with a typically arrogant power-grab. Supporters of the socialist leader, Tomiichi Murayama, who defected to become prime minister, are still sniggering over such lines as “The socialists will never rule …”

Most foreign commentators have also failed to grasp the fact that this book in no way represents a personal manifesto, as it is understood in the West. It was compiled by a group of academics and bureaucrats and represents the tatemae – the packaging, if you like – rather than the honne, the real content, of Ozawaism.

But most important of all, there is a yawning credibility gap between what Ozawa says and what he actually accomplished during the three years when he was in a position to at least make a start on building the “new Japan” he advocates. He, after all, was the real power behind prime ministers Kaifu, Hosokawa and Hata.

In Ozawa’s view, Japan is “the ultimate dinosaur … a great beast with a tiny brain, which has not learnt to exercise sufficient control over its power”. The root cause for this is the consensus style of its social organisation, the “tyranny of the minority”, under which leadership is impossible and authority is so diffuse that no-one is responsible for anything.

Cabinet, says Ozawa, has become an “empty institution” with unelected bureaucrats writing the agenda. The prime minister “is nothing more than a master of ceremonies for the ritual at hand”. Parliament is a rubber-stamp for pork-trading done in the Diet’s notorious secret committee sessions.

So far, there is nothing exceptional or original in these views. They are precisely what Western “revisionists” such as Karel van Wolferen have been writing for a decade and more.

The only mild frisson is that this time they come from a Japanese, and from a Japanese who has observed all this at first hand.

It is when Ozawa proposes remedies for making Japan a more “normal” nation- defined, again hardly remarkably, as one where a government “takes responsibility for a fixed period of time, with clearly defined powers and policies” – that the book begins to have a phoney ring.

He proposes “five freedoms” – from Tokyo, from corporations, from overwork, from agism and sexism, and from government regulation. Where, one might fairly ask, was Ozawa when he was in a position to influence policy in these matters.

Decentralisation, in spite of decades of hefty studies, is still a pipe-dream. Corporate bondage (or, as Ozawa pungently puts it, “workers (who)are owned like pets by their companies”) is barely diminished, and people in increasing numbers die of karoshi, or overwork.

Ozawa stood by while Japan passed the world’s weakest anti-discrimination legislation, which provides no penalties at all. As for Japan’s stifling over-regulation, it has been steadily increasing for the past five years; even such absurdities as a monopoly on the sale of salt, first brought in during the Russian War of 1905, survive.

On one issue only has Ozawa put his money where his royalties are, and that is the one that most alarms Japanese – his proposal to revise Article 9 of the”peace constitution” which prevents Japan from maintaining armed forces.

Ozawa stitched up the deal under which – by a mind-boggling”reinterpretation” – Japan can at least send troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations such as Cambodia. This was internationally welcome(Japan was denounced for refusing to support the Gulf War) but remains a divisive issue domestically.

Although Article 9 is patently an absurdity (Japan’s military is the second-best-financed in the world), many Japanese believe it to be a vital safeguard against a repeat of the militarism that led to World War II. With more than 80 per cent of voters – not to mention the Socialists, now in government – opposed to any revision, Ozawa’s ideas for an enhanced role for Japan in regional security will not happen any time soon.

On the burning issue of political reform, Ozawa has been a late and reluctant convert to a fairer, cleaner “dual list” electoral system – but five years after Kaifu first proposed the current reforms, the legislation has still not passed Parliament.

The biggest laugh of all should be reserved for Ozawa’s proposal to clean up Japan’s endemically corrupt electioneering. He writes: “The best way to increase public trust is to make the flow of money completely transparent.”

Donations to individuals should be banned, and only one fund-raising group allowed.

Since he entered parliament as the protege of the corrupt Kakuei Tanaka, Ozawa has been known as the master of “money politics”. As the LDP’s bagman, he raised, according to one authoritative source, no less than $200 million to save the party from disaster in the 1990 elections.

Two separate taskforces are now investigating allegedly illegal donations to Ozawa from the scandal-racked construction industry. He declares himself innocent, but refuses to release the books of the five groups known to have raised money for him, or to disclose the names of the donors. So much for transparency.

It is not hard to see why many Japanese – not just hard-nosed cynics in the LDP – regard Ozawa as part of the problem, not part of the solution, and dismiss his book as little more than self-serving window-dressing.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Friday 26 August 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 13
Word count: 1234