Don’t count Ozawa out of the scene yet

Kingpin lying low but clout, quest for power linger


When Naoto Kan announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party of Japan presidency last week, he told reporters DPJ kingpin Ichiro Ozawa “should remain silent” for a while after quitting as secretary general, considering how his political money scandals helped speed the downfall of Yukio Hatoyama as prime minister.

In a bid to rebuild the DPJ’s image, Kan’s administration will try to distance itself from the “shadow shogun” with some fresh faces in the Cabinet and party executive positions.

But experts say that while Ozawa may have slipped under the radar for now, the veteran lawmaker’s career is far from over and he is bound to make waves again depending on how the DPJ fares under its new management.

“I think Mr. Ozawa made a careful strategic move,” Jun Saito, an associate professor of political science at Yale University and a former DPJ member, said of the party kingpin’s exit last week.

“In order for Mr. Ozawa to survive politically, the DPJ needs to win the upcoming Upper House election. Otherwise, the Diet will enter a total stalemate and no significant reforms will be carried out.

“I believe Mr. Ozawa is consciously playing the role of villain,” Saito said.

The abrupt resignations last week of Ozawa and Hatoyama have already proven surprisingly effective; recent polls indicate that the DPJ’s approval rate, which had been nose-diving for the past few months, hit a strong updraft.

Saito said Ozawa’s resignation may have also been timely considering how an inquest panel will soon decide — possibly before the Upper House election — whether to indict him over his money scandals.

“Because of the public sentiment, it might have made a lot of sense for Mr. Ozawa to hide from the public eye — doing so will insulate him from potential damage to the party on the whole,” Saito said.

The new Cabinet and party executive roster include all seven of the “nana bugyo” (seven samurai magistrates) — up-and-coming DPJ politicians — including land minister Seiji Maehara and the party’s new policy chief, Koichiro Genba. Both are opponents of Ozawa.

But most symbolic of the shift from Ozawa may have been the appointment of Yukio Edano, former minister in charge of the Administrative Reform Council, as his replacement.

Speaking to reporters Monday night, the new DPJ secretary general stressed the importance of striving for a transparent and clean party to regain the public’s trust. Edano announced he “will no longer receive any corporate political donations.”

In a further move away from Ozawa, Jun Azumi, new chairman of the DPJ’s campaign committee, has hinted he may drop Ozawa’s strategy of fielding multiple candidates in the 12 districts from which two lawmakers will be elected in next month’s Upper House campaign.

“As far as the personnel selection is consistent with the DPJ’s winning (the Upper House election), Mr. Ozawa would be able to live with it,” said Saito on whether Ozawa will feel compelled to reinject his influence. “He has already established the framework for the election by picking and fielding candidates. No matter who succeeds Mr. Ozawa, the DPJ’s electioneering is based on Mr. Ozawa’s grand design.”

A bigger concern for Ozawa, as head of the largest intraparty group boasting around 150 lawmakers, will be the potential party policy shift under the new lineup.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said the new administration may appeal to urbanites of a higher socioeconomic group instead of rural voters, whose support Ozawa tried to woo.

Kan, as well as Renho, the newly appointed minister in charge of administrative reform, debuted as politicians from Tokyo districts.

And Edano, although born in Tochigi Prefecture, represents Saitama Prefecture’s Omiya district in the Diet.

“A generational change has taken place within the party leadership, with those in their 40s and 50s dominating the higher ranks,” Nakano said.

“If Ozawa feels out of place with the new lineup, or feels the party’s policies are drifting away from what he has in mind, he may be inclined to reach out to other political parties that share his views,” Nakano said.

But in either case, experts say Ozawa will wait until after the election before deciding his next move.

“Ozawa has consistently proved throughout his career that he is capable of rising from the ashes,” Nakano said. “And considering his voracious appetite for power, we should expect to see a lot more of him.”

No expo for Kan

Kyodo News

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has decided not to attend “Japan Day” events at the World Expo in Shanghai on Saturday, which would have been his diplomatic debut as prime minister, government sources said.

Kan is likely to make his first overseas trip as prime minister when he attends a Group of Eight summit starting June 25 in Canada, the sources said, adding that former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama might go to the Shanghai event as a proxy for Kan.