Last year was a bad one for the Democratic Party of Japan. Its troubles started when DPJ lawmaker Hisayasu Nagata implied that the son of Tsutomu Ta-kebe, a big shot in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was involved in a money-for-favors deal. Once it was revealed that Nagata’s evidence was false, the DPJ had to go through all sorts of humiliating contortions to regain face.

The incident highlighted the organization’s failing in its role as the recognized main opposition party. The DPJ sees this role as bringing down the ruling coalition, but it doesn’t attempt to accomplish this mission by challenging the coalition on its policies, probably because there isn’t as much ideological difference between the LDP and the DPJ as the DPJ would like you to think. DPJ head Ichiro Ozawa’s recent attempt to make a big thing out of the LDP’s alleged misuse of funds proves that the only way the party can fight the coalition is by digging dirt.

Politicians are not required by law to disclose itemized expenses for running their offices, but last year several LDP lawmakers were scrutinized because they had spent a lot of money on office expenses even though they used government offices rent-free. The opposition wondered whether this money, which is a combination of private donations and public funds, was being used for something outside of political activities, such as personal enrichment. Two Cabinet ministers and the LDP policy chief have drawn particular attention. However, Ozawa’s own expenses, which amounted to a whopping 415 million yen in 2005, raised some eyebrows as well.

The party chief tried to turn this minus into a plus by disclosing his expenses to reporters on Feb. 21. A hefty portion was used for purchasing land in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and constructing a dormitory on it for his staff. Since Ozawa’s political group is not incorporated it cannot own real estate, so the property is in Ozawa’s name.

Understanding that it looks suspicious for a politician to own land purchased with money that is supposed to be used for political activities, Ozawa also gave reporters a document stating that he has no legal claim to the property, and that it will be used in the future “for grass-roots exchange programs” carried out by his foundation, which promotes Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.

By disclosing his own office expenses, Ozawa is challenging LDP lawmakers to disclose theirs, knowing that they won’t and will thus attract further suspicions. However, this plan seems to have backfired.

In an editorial, the Mainichi Shimbun said it agrees that LDP lawmakers must come clean about their office expenses but that Ozawa’s own disclosure raises more questions than it answers. Why does he need to buy land and construct a dormitory for staff, especially in one of Tokyo’s most expensive areas? Ozawa says he wants to make the most out of the money his supporters have so graciously contributed and so buying property is more effective in the long run than renting it. But political groups aren’t companies, and political funds are not meant for the long run. They are meant to pay for activities that help a politician get elected and do his job right now.

In the end, a scheme to embarrass the LDP has simply fortified the belief that the DPJ always shoots from the hip and ends up hitting itself in the foot.

They seem to be reloading for the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election, whose influence reaches beyond the capital’s borders.

The current governor, Shintaro Ishihara, said as much when he first ran for the office in 1999, claiming that he could “change Japan” more easily from the governor’s seat than he could from the national assembly. Regional political groups from outside of Tokyo have formed committees to draft or support certain Tokyo gubernatorial candidates.

Ishihara is running for a third term and many believe he’s unbeatable. He’s also running as an independent, albeit with the unsolicited endorsement of the LDP. As the main opposition party, the DPJ must come up with its own candidate and for the last few weeks there has been a mad scramble to find one before the March 22 registration deadline.

DPJ member Banri Kaieda wants to run against Ishihara, but according to the Asahi Shimbun the party leadership has been cool toward his candidacy. Kaieda lost his Diet seat in 2005, but he is also the party’s main policymaker, especially with regard to economic issues.

The DPJ is split. A portion of the party believes it should field its own candidate while another portion thinks it should just look for a winner and, given the public’s current disillusionment with party politics as exemplified by the victory of Hideo Higashikokubaru in the recent Miyazaki gubernatorial election, they’d be better off endorsing an independent. For a while, the DPJ had placed its bets on Shiro Asano, the popular former governor of Miyagi Prefecture, who was being pressured by citizens groups to run.

At first, Asano said he wasn’t interested, but last Friday on the TBS morning wide show “Asazuba,” he implied he would run regardless of whether or not the DPJ fields its own candidate. If he does run, he said it would be as a “serious candidate,” which is taken to mean that he will address the issues that he believes are important. It was an obvious swipe at the DPJ, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do.

Earlier, the Mainichi said as much about the DPJ’s lack of foresight. “Everybody knows Ishihara’s plans for the future,” the paper said in an editorial, “but the DPJ just looks around for famous people. Is that how an opposition party operates?” If, as everyone assumes, the Tokyo governor’s race is a test of party strength for the upcoming national elections, the DPJ can look forward to another bad year in 2007.