According to major media opinion polls, if the choice of who will lead the country was up to the populace, Prime Minister Naoto Kan would retain his position against fellow Democratic Party of Japan member Ichiro Ozawa’s challenge to the party presidency and the premiership.

In all these surveys, Kan tends to receive support from 60 to 80 percent of the respondents, whereas Ozawa garners less than 20 percent. But as these media are quick to point out, the numbers have little meaning, since the general citizenry is not going to cast ballots. Only DPJ members will.

However, by conducting these surveys on an almost daily basis, the big newspapers and wire services may affect the vote. It’s said that within the party Ozawa has an edge, but some of his supporters may look at the surveys and wonder about their own individual political futures. Their support for Ozawa might hurt them when they are up for re-election, which could be sooner than expected, since some in the media are predicting that Ozawa may dissolve the Diet if he becomes prime minister and call a general election.

This scenario, however, disregards the character of Ozawa’s acolytes. In a letter to the Asahi Shimbun, a woman expressed her contempt for the legions of new DPJ lawmakers who “mindlessly” do whatever Ozawa says because they believe they owe him on (obligation) for helping them get elected last year. An article in the weekly Shukan Gendai likened them to a religious cult that browbeats any member who expresses the slightest doubt about Ozawa’s leadership.

To big media, that’s another black mark against Ozawa, but not to the tabloids and some of the weekly magazines, which have indicated support for the so-called Shadow Shogun. Sports Nippon published its own survey, which showed public support rates totally reversed, with Ozawa leading Kan by a hefty margin. Nikkan Gendai has made a point of predicting Ozawa’s victory with big headlines in almost every daily edition for the past two weeks, claiming that the “mass media” is “lying” about the race.

Though any halfway sentient reader knows tabloid pronouncements are made to draw attention to themselves — when Ozawa is involved in money scandals, they gleefully portray him as a yakuza boss — they are read widely by urban white-collar workers, an important demographic for any politician. And it may be having the intended effect. Even in big-media surveys, Ozawa’s public support rate has been creeping up as the election draws near.

Big media’s main complaint is that Ozawa quit only three months ago as the DPJ’s secretary general because of a funding scandal that won’t go away and which will hover over his administration, even if he can’t be prosecuted once he’s prime minister. This is their primary reason for supporting Kan, whom they say should remain as prime minister for reasons of “stability.” Kan is Japan’s fifth leader in four years.

The position of the tabloids and some of the weeklies is that these are “passive” reasons to support Kan, who has not demonstrated anything akin to leadership since he took over from Yukio Hatoyama in June. He bungled the Upper House election and then refused to step down to take responsibility. In the meantime he’s handed the budget- making process back to the bureaucracy, thus abandoning the DPJ pledge to give elected lawmakers greater power. As for stability, Japan has had three different prime ministers in the space of one year. What’s one more?

Big-media support for Kan is not necessarily seconded by liberal opinion-makers, who would normally be expected to support anybody except Ozawa, the country’s chief representative of old-school money politics. Popular liberal economist and TV personality Takuro Morinaga says he prefers Ozawa, as does Makoto Sataka, an editor of the muckraking, leftwing weekly Kinyobi, mainly because both hate the bureaucracy more than they do Ozawa.

This paradox was explored in a conversation published in the magazine Shukan Gendai between former Economic Planning Agency chief Shusei Tanaka, who has known Kan for 35 years, and veteran Jiji Press reporter Shiro Tazaki. They believe that Ozawa has no genuine desire to be prime minister, that he prefers controlling things from behind the scenes.

Kan marginalized Ozawa and his acolytes when he formed a Cabinet without any representatives from their camp. Ozawa wants to get rid of Kan, and the only way to do that is to replace him himself. (He originally wanted Makiko Tanaka — the daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, his political mentor when he started in the Liberal Democratic Party — to challenge Kan, but couldn’t rally enough support for her.) In the intraparty negotiations several weeks ago, Ozawa promised not to run if Kan agreed to include some of Ozawa’s people in his Cabinet. After much confused give and take, Kan said he couldn’t.

According to Tanaka, Kan is only interested in being prime minister, and will thus do anything to keep that position short of allowing Ozawa the kind of power he had before June, since Kan is supported by a DPJ faction that resents Ozawa and has told Kan that if he surrenders to Ozawa’s demands, his administration will collapse.

Because the DPJ has always been a patchwork organization, this sort of crisis was inevitable once it became the ruling party. The independently wealthy Yukio Hatoyama was always the money behind the DPJ, and when Ozawa joined in 2003, he brought with him an incredible amount of political influence. Tazaki says Kan has never contributed anything except a “clean image” left over from his grassroots activist beginnings, and he believes it is just a front for his ambition.

The choice, according to these two men, is between the “bad person” Ozawa and the “dishonest person” Kan. “What Kan doesn’t realize,” Tanaka points out, “is that society hates the dishonest person more than the bad person.”

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