The Democratic Party of Japan's oldest lawmaker recently had a few bitter words for his old friend, DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa.
Speaking in Fukuoka earlier this month, Kozo Watabe criticized what he considered the monopolization of party authority in Ozawa's hands.
"If Mr. Ozawa says turn right, we turn right. If he says turn left, we turn left. And if he says five plus five is 15, then we just have to say, 'Yes, sir,' " Watabe said.
Although the 77-year-old veteran lawmaker was apparently unhappy with Ozawa's decision not to reappoint him as the party's top adviser, his comments did provide a glimpse into how Ozawa almost single-handedly dictates policy, trying to reform the way politics are done.
But his top-down management isn't open to criticism, and his overwhelming authority over the DPJ has led many to fear Ozawa's influence may undermine the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the party's president.
There are already signs.
When the Government Revitalization Unit recruited 32 lawmakers as part of a team of inspectors tasked with examining and recommending cuts in unnecessary state budget expenditures, Ozawa muscled in and demanded first-term lawmakers be excluded, drastically cutting their ranks and in the process highlighting Hatoyama's lack of leadership.
"Even after being a lawmaker for 40 years, I still find it difficult to examine fat budget documents — besides, the party was unaware of the entire process," Ozawa said in an Oct. 26 press conference on his reasons for keeping junior ranks out.
The incident was evidence that Ozawa not only had assumed control of the DPJ, but also had a say in government personnel decisions.
In a recent article for the quarterly journal Bungei Shunju, political commentator Takashi Tachibana expressed concern over Ozawa's increasing clout, and compared his dictatorial style to that of Ozawa's Liberal Democratic Party mentor, the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, one of postwar Japan's most powerful, and scandal-tainted, politicians. Known as the "shadow shogun," Tanaka's behind-the-scenes clout lasted long after his prime ministership ended.
But with the entry of some 140 freshmen lawmakers who rode the DPJ's tidal wave into power in the Aug. 30 election, and who owe their success to Ozawa, his political influence now even dwarfs Tanaka's. "Ozawa has now assumed command of the nation's future," Tachibana wrote.
Even though Ozawa was forced by financial scandal to give up the DPJ presidency last spring, and faces fresh allegations of receiving illegal political donations, his influence seems to be on an ever-increasing upward trajectory.
He recently ruled that all petitions directed from municipalities to the government be channeled through the DPJ secretary general's office instead of having their targeted ministries handle them.
Ozawa said this "reform" was intended to prevent various organizations from directly petitioning ministries — a practice that often led to cozy ties between bureaucrats and politicians with vested interests.
"Petitions taken directly to the central bureaucracy via political connections contravene our goal of decentralizing power," Ozawa said this month.
While significantly hiking the authority of his office, the petition rerouting simultaneously serves to bolster the DPJ's control over municipal organizations — key vote-generating machines — ahead of next summer's Upper House poll, in which the party aims to win a majority on its own.
But while such tactics may boost the DPJ's chances of winning elections, experts warn it is essential that Ozawa not become a "back seat driver" who pulls the strings behind the scenes and is immune from responsibility.
Hidekazu Kawai, honorary professor at Gakushuin University, said that considering Ozawa's background and political expertise, it was only natural that he assumed command of the party — especially with most of the other DPJ heavyweights in the Cabinet.
Ozawa — a '90s defector from the LDP — was the point man when it came to whittling away the LDP's traditional support base ahead of the last poll, and is doing likewise for the coming Upper House election, and Hatoyama thus has no choice but to rely on him, Kawai said.
But unless the administration can find a way to hold Ozawa accountable, he could become the next shadow shogun, calling the shots without ever having to take any responsibility for the government's actions, Kawai said, adding the key to the political situation will be whether the kingmaker can be held to account.
Ozawa's rapid changes in the way the government does business are having side effects. Since the DPJ abolished the policy research council, lawmakers who aren't part of the government apparatus are having a hard time getting their voices heard.
Out of the 419 DPJ lawmakers, 160 have been assigned to either government, party or Diet posts, leaving more than 200 with time on their hands.
A rookie DPJ lawmaker, who declined to be named, recently said he was still unsure how he could be involved in policy decisions, voicing hope that a way can be paved for young lawmakers' opinions to be reflected in policymaking.
"It's as if we're only here to vote – bills,” he said.
|Shadow shogun: Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa heads to the Prime Minister's
Official Residence on Nov. 14, escorted by a security guard.
But Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University, said that while it was unlikely Ozawa will loosen his grip on power, he also believed the media might be going overboard with his image as a backroom fixer.
Despite fears of Ozawa’s influence, there’s a limit to how far his authority can stretch, he said, adding, “After all, he’s neither the prime minister nor the president of the DPJ. He can’t possibly assume complete control.”