Ichiro Ozawa, a frontline player in national politics for more than 25 years, has again become a center of focus.
Leading the opposition bloc that controls the Upper House, Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, is arguably the most powerful Diet figure right now after Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
From his position of strength, aides say Ozawa appears determined to build a powerful opposition party and, ultimately, replace the Liberal Democratic Party as the ruling force — a dream he has nurtured since defecting from the LDP in 1993.
That year, Ozawa shocked the political world by joining the opposition camp, taking 43 followers with him. The defection toppled the LDP from power for the first time since its inception in 1955 and a non-LDP coalition, led by Morihiro Hosokawa, took up the reigns of power.
The coalition collapsed after only nine months, however, and the LDP returned to power by forming a ruling bloc with its longtime archrival, the Social Democratic Party, in June 1994. The LDP hasn't budged from power since, and that has tormented Ozawa.
"All along, he has said he wants to devote himself to establishing a system where power can change hands," said Sadao Hirano, a former Upper House lawmaker and one of Ozawa's closest aides.
Ozawa, however, has been something of a mystery to the public. And as a man of few words who makes no secret of his disdain for the media, he has done little to give the public a glimpse into the person behind the public persona.
"He is such a poor speaker that he has always been misunderstood," Hirano said.
Indeed, there are so many contradictory images of Ozawa that it is difficult to believe they all belong to the same man.
Ozawa's followers praise him as a charismatic figure with strong leadership qualities, whereas many insiders say he is self-centered, secretive and authoritarian.
He is also often described as "a man of policy principle," advocating set positions for years while paying little heed to which way the political winds are blowing.
Others accuse him of playing power games and caring little for policy substance.
But political scientist Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University and, from 1993 to 1994, secretary to Prime Minister Hosokawa, cautioned against drawing a simple portrait of Ozawa.
"He has two faces: He is a man of policy fundamentals, but at the same time he is a political realist," Narita said. "He is a childish, self-centered man. But he is a very smart kid, too."
For example, Narita noted Ozawa's stance on the consumption tax. Ozawa had long called for a small government guaranteeing a bare minimum of welfare services — the cost of which he argues should be funded by a higher consumption tax.
But after taking the DPJ helm in April last year, he fell silent on a potential tax hike, which would have been highly unpopular with the public and also likely to sour voters in the runup to the Upper House election last July. He went so far as to remove mention of a tax hike from the party's campaign platform.
While many experts have questioned Ozawa's shift, Narita said, the veteran politician's tactics have benefited the party. "He has implanted power realism in – DPJ members.”
Then there is Ozawa’s posture on Japan’s participation in U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping forces.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, Ozawa has consistently argued that, despite the war-renouncing Constitution, Japanese troops should be able to participate in a multinational force provided the operation is authorized by the U.N.
Ozawa recently argued that his pet theory could also be applied to the NATO-led security operations in Afghanistan. He has suggested that Japanese troops could contribute to peacekeeping there because, he says, those operations are U.N. sanctioned.
But critics call Ozawa’s argument mere political theater designed to deflect criticism that the DPJ is opposed to helping international efforts to combat terrorism.
First, the critics say the electorate would never stomach putting Japanese troops in such a dangerous situation. Second, they contend that although the U.N. has sanctioned the Afghan mission, it does not directly administer it.
Ozawa, once considered dictatorial in the way he runs political parties, is also trying to show he has the savvy and flexibility to manage the DPJ.
When he was elected DPJ president, almost all political commentators questioned whether he could successfully manage the largest opposition party.
Opposition parties he has led in the past, except the DPJ, eventually broke up because members fell out with him over what they called his failure to communicate and his high-handed leadership.
But Ozawa now appears to have relented.
He has let party executives Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, both past top DPJ figures, handle most day-to-day party affairs, except for key decisions pertaining to election strategy, policy and Diet affairs.
It could be because the clock is ticking and Ozawa knows it. Debuting as the youngest LDP secretary general in 1989 at age 47, he is now 65 and is the only politician who has survived as a key player through the 1980s, 1990s and this decade.
“Not much time is left for him. As he himself has put it, he is no longer young,” Narita said, explaining Ozawa’s apparent softening.
Hirano, for his part, said Ozawa recently appears comfortable at the helm of the DPJ — indeed, much more comfortable than at any other time in recent memory.
The sense of buoyancy, said Hirano, may suggest Ozawa still has his eyes on the top prize in politics: the prime ministership.