Over the decades he’s been dubbed the “shadow shogun,” “the destroyer” and “the backroom fixer” for his powerful influence in the political arena and penchant for shaking up governments with his “strong hand.”
And despite signs that his clout may be diminishing since being indicted earlier this year over a political funds scandal, Ichiro Ozawa remains a critical figure in politics, a shadowy string-puller whose presence can’t be ignored, especially in times of political turmoil.
“Ozawa has become, over the years, an icon as an antimainstream politician,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University.
Iwai said the 69-year-old Ozawa is a “specter of power” with a history of building parties or coalitions and then tearing them down, a reputation that has elevated him to semilegendary status, but also an image that has been blown out of proportion.
Since the early 1990s when Ozawa left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and helped form a seven-party coalition led by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, Iwai said the lawmaker has seen his share of ups and downs, with the recent opposition-backed no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Naoto Kan representing a new low in his career.
Ozawa has held a grudge against Kan since September, when he narrowly lost the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election to Kan, who then refused to allow Ozawa’s allies to take any important party and administration posts.
It wasn’t long after that Ozawa was handed the long-awaited indictment for political funding violations and his party membership was suspended, weakening his influence in the DPJ.
But in a bid to oust Kan and to possibly trigger a political realignment, Ozawa encouraged dozens of DPJ lawmakers close to him to vote in favor of this month’s no-confidence motion submitted by the LDP-led opposition camp and hinted at forming a new party if it passed.
However, most of his followers changed their mind at the last minute when Kan offered to step down in the coming months, a sign that Ozawa’s loyalists were wavering.
While Kan’s abrupt announcement may have helped keep the DPJ from falling apart, it sparked talk of the DPJ seeking a grand coalition with the LDP to get critical bills through the opposition-controlled Upper House, and fierce speculation over who will succeed Kan once he’s gone.
Iwai said Ozawa has few options remaining except to try to forge a group of at least 70 or 80 loyal lawmakers to have a say when voting for the new prime minister.
It was reported that Tuesday, Ozawa invited around 20 close Lower House lawmakers to his home and asked for their unity, emphasizing the importance of working in solidarity in choosing the next leader.
“If Ozawa is able to collect a significant number of votes to support a candidate, he could use this influence to have the new leader grant lawmakers close to him ministerial positions, which would increase his clout in the new administration,” Iwai said.
Among the names being floated as potential prime minister candidates, Iwai believes Ozawa is leaning toward supporting farm minister Michihiko Kano.
And while it’s unclear what scenario Ozawa has in mind thereafter, Iwai said that maintaining a significant number of followers would also send the message that if another no-confidence motion comes up during the next Diet session, he would have enough backing to let the motion clear the Lower House, triggering a Cabinet overhaul or a snap general election.
While learning the tricks of money and politics in the 1980s under his mentor, the scandal-tainted late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and the late LDP don Shin Kanemaru, Ozawa was considered a reformer in the 1990s, criticizing the LDP’s one-party rule and citing from early on the necessity for a two-party system while advocating that Japan play a larger role in global affairs.
But despite finally succeeding in helping bring about the historical regime change of two years ago, Ozawa still appears hungry for power.
Political commentator Tobias Harris said it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what exactly Ozawa stands for in the confusion currently swirling through the political arena.
“The (DPJ’s) 2009 manifesto? That’s not much of an answer, given how riddled with inconsistencies and evasions that manifesto was,” Harris said.
“For all the talk of Ozawa’s forming a new party, I don’t have the slightest idea what his new party would stand for, other than spending money in the manner of the old manifesto,” he said.
But Harris said that considering the recent turn of events, it is unlikely Ozawa would still consider forming a new party.
“I have a hard time seeing him form a new party. I think the no-confidence fiasco showed that there is little appetite among younger DPJ politicians to leave and start anew in a different party.
“So the fight will continue within the DPJ, but other than forcing Kan to leave sooner rather than later, it’s unclear to me what role Ozawa will play in the party’s future,” he said.
But while Ozawa finds himself in something of a tight spot, he is also known for rising again and again from the ashes. The political maverick has a gift for casting himself in the center of power.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said that throughout his long career Ozawa has experienced several “peaks,” and there is still the possibility he will find himself in the spotlight once again.
Known for his skills to make deals behind the scenes and ability to collect large amounts of cash from various sources, Ozawa shot to fame in 1989 when at the relatively young age of 47 he was selected secretary general of the long-ruling LDP under Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Taking control of the party alongside heavyweights Noboru Takeshita and Kanemaru, Ozawa used his infamous campaign smarts — another trait for which he is well known — to lead the LDP to victory in the 1990 Lower House election.
But Ozawa’s tumultuous career only intensified from that point forward.
When mentor Kanemaru had to resign from the Diet over corruption charges in 1992, Ozawa found himself attacked by critics, prompting him to team up with ally Tsutomu Hata to form Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party) with dozens of LDP defectors.
Winning 55 seats in the following snap election, Ozawa and Hata then teamed up with six other opposition parties to topple the LDP’s 38-year dominance and create a short-lived government under Hosokawa.
But when Hata, Hosokawa’s successor, was forced to resign after the Social Democratic Party of Japan departed the coalition government, the LDP shot back into power and Ozawa found himself in the opposition.
Ozawa went on to form Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) in 1994, and became its president in 1995. However, after losing seats in the 1996 Lower House election, Ozawa faced much criticism from within the party, which dissolved in 1997.
“These were hard times for Ozawa,” Sophia’s Nakano said.
But Ozawa then formed the Liberal Party with his remaining followers and formed a coalition government with the LDP.
While talk of an eventual merger surfaced, the nascent move was stamped out by Ozawa’s critics, including heavyweights Junichiro Koizumi and Koichi Kato. But in 2003, immediately before a Lower House election, Ozawa merged his Liberal Party with the DPJ and climbed to the party presidency in 2005. There he used his campaign acumen to guide the party to a huge victory in the 2007 Upper House election.
Ozawa maintained much power in the DPJ — despite resigning as president in 2009 over money scandals — and is widely considered the architect of the DPJ’s historic victory in 2009 that knocked the LDP out of power.
But on Jan. 31 he was indicted over a controversial land purchase by his political funding organization, Rikuzankai. His party membership was suspended, forcing him against a wall.
“Until the court case ends, Ozawa will have difficulty making his next move,” Nakano of Sophia University said, adding his future depends on when and how the case wraps up.
“But one cannot ignore how Ozawa played an important role in the transition of politics — from the LDP’s one-party dominance to the age of coalition governments and eventually to the regime change,” he said.
Nakano said that with the limited amount of talent in the current pool of politicians, he believes someone like Ozawa will survive and may even extend his influence once again, with or without the support of the so-called Ozawa children — rookie lawmakers who got elected with his help and who now account for the bulk of his supporters.
“Ozawa has never assumed the prime ministership, and considering his past he may well play a crucial role in future political realignments — his political instincts are outstanding,” Nakano said.
“He is a politician with two sides — he is well-versed with old-school money politics while also being a political reformist — and that makes him an enigma.”