National / Media | MEDIA MIX

A 'stable' life for Ozawa, yakuza, sumo stars

In the Jan. 25 issue of Aera, show-business reporter Yoshiko Matsumoto, writing about the persistence of image, related an anecdote about Seiji Maehara. The land minister was traveling coach on a domestic JAL flight and after the airplane landed he helped other passengers remove their belongings from the overhead compartments.

Maehara is a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, and Matsumoto pointed out that such behavior would be considered out-of-character for anyone in the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whose more prominent members tend to assert their positions of authority by taking advantage of the trappings of privilege. Matsumoto didn’t claim that the DPJ as a party rejects these trappings. She only focused on Maehara as an isolated example of a politician whose personal style diverges from what people expect, but it’s probably safe to say that most Japanese citizens, not to mention the media, see the DPJ more in this light.

The glaring exception is Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s secretary general. In another anecdote, told by a reporter on the TBS wide show “Hiruobi,” Ozawa was traveling by shinkansen from Obihiro to Sapporo with an entourage. Though there were seats available, one of Ozawa’s acolytes stood next to his seat the entire trip while the veteran politician held forth on various topics. The acolyte simply listened, nodding his head and briskly saying “hai” (“yes”) at appropriate intervals.

Ozawa, as this example illustrates, represents the LDP image of privileged authority even better than most current LDP members do, which is easy to understand since he was a member of that party until 1993 and, in fact, was himself the favorite acolyte of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who basically invented the system of “money politics” that dominated LDP-led governments since the 1970s. Ozawa is now under investigation for his own shady means of raising and spending money. The media say he is threatening to undermine the DPJ’s attempts to overhaul Japanese politics by reminding the public that he’s still tainted by “the culture of the LDP.”

So far prosecutors have yet to pin anything on Ozawa himself, but as often happens in such a standoff they have brought charges against three former and current Ozawa secretaries, one of whom, Tomohiro Ishikawa, was the obsequious acolyte on the shinkansen. Ozawa currently employs 10 such secretaries, more than any other Diet lawmaker at the moment. The government subsidizes up to three, and the rest are paid for by the politician. Altogether, seven of Ozawa’s former secretaries, including Ishikawa, have gone on to become national legislators on their own, thus providing Ozawa with close allies in the Diet. One of Tanaka’s bromides was, “Politics is numbers, and numbers mean power.” Reportedly, when any political ally, and not just an acolyte, approached him for help, he would give the person a shopping bag of money. Legend has it that Tanaka had a room filled with shopping bags of money.

The idea was to secure loyalties with potential political leaders, but the best way to do this is to cultivate loyalty from the ground up. At one point, Tanaka had 50 secretaries, which is a record and something few politicians can afford to do any more even if they are so inclined. Ozawa tries. The reporter on “Hiruobi” explained how his secretaries get up at five in the morning, weed the boss’s garden and cook his family breakfast. They also do the laundry and clean the house, and when it’s hot they stand around with uchiwa (fans) like members of a harem keeping Ozawa cool because he hates air conditioning. Other commentators on the show didn’t buy this last piece of intelligence, though one older pundit expressed the opinion that today’s young people would do well to experience a bit of old-fashioned indentured servitude.

A different pundit compared this situation to a shisho (master) and deshi (apprentice) relationship or that between a veteran sumo wrestler and a rookie. You can stretch the analogy to a yakuza and his gang of chimpira (punks), which isn’t difficult to do with politicians of Tanaka’s or Ozawa’s temperament. The TBS reporter went on to say that for Ozawa’s secretaries “groveling helps.”

Another chief advantage of this acolyte system is that it sets the boss at a greater distance from any legally suspicious activities. The problem prosecutors are having with the land scandal is finding any tangible connection between Ozawa and the money. As long as it was the secretaries who handled the cash — and some media have gone so far as to state out loud that what the secretaries did amounted to money laundering — Ozawa can’t be indicted for anything. The Asahi Shimbun reports that different secretaries had specific tasks in terms of the way the money was handled. The primary reason is that no single secretary has control of the money, but a secondary reason is that suspicious activities are spread thin.

The most important criterion when Ozawa hires a secretary is the potential acolyte’s desire to be a politician. The stronger the desire, the greater the ambition and thus the more secure the loyalty. Japanese history is filled with acolytes who killed themselves to protect their mentors, and Ishikawa’s father told reporters after his son’s arrest that he had told him, “Don’t die.”

The DPJ is thus caught in a bind, not so much because Ozawa is one of them. Ozawa works for himself. But it’s generally assumed that his acolytes were instrumental in winning last August’s general election by going to different constituencies and training DPJ candidates in the art of campaigning. The training involves little more than standing around yelling your name and the name of your party, but that paves the way for Ozawa to show up and give his endorsement. He may be boorish, imperious and unappealing, but power has its own ineffable attraction, and in the end that’s what matters.

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