This is the fourth in a 10-part series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April. During Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

Reformer, kingmaker, shadow shogun, destroyer.

With so many labels, no politician stands out like Ichiro Ozawa among Japan’s conformist legislators.

That may be hard to fathom for the present-day casual observer. After all, Ozawa, 76, is now head of a fringe opposition force, the Liberal Party, with only six lawmakers in the Diet.

Still, Ozawa, a skilled strategist and political operator, has arguably been Japan’s most consequential and divisive politician during the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30.

During these 30 years, Japan’s political establishment has oscillated between reform and convention. The country has seen 17 prime ministers as well as countless political parties formed and splintered in the hopes of bringing real reform to Japan.

Amid the decades of turbulence, Ozawa was always at the center of the political drama.

Then-Shinshinto leader Ichiro Ozawa, appearing in Minato Ward, Tokyo, with former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, holds up a sign for the party
Then-Shinshinto leader Ichiro Ozawa, appearing in Minato Ward, Tokyo, with former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, holds up a sign for the party’s campaign headquarters for the 1996 Lower House elections. | KYODO

For one, he was responsible for breaking the Liberal Democratic Party’s iron grip on power not once, but twice. He is widely regarded as the architect who dethroned the LDP in 1993 for the first time in the nearly 40 years since its inception, as he defected to establish a credible reformist party that went on to execute a number of key reforms that upended the rules of politics.

Then in 2009, he once again helped bring down the LDP as the chief election strategist for the Democratic Party of Japan, drastically changing Japan’s political scene for the second time.

“Ozawa has played a role in introducing all of the current political systems,” political analyst Kenji Goto, former editor-in-chief of Kyodo News, wrote in a 2010 book.

Among those reforms Ozawa spearheaded during the early 1990s were electoral and political finance reforms — the introduction of a single-seat constituency system for the Lower House, as well as government subsidies for major parties.

The single-seat electoral reform was aimed at nurturing a major opposition party that could compete with the LDP to establish a true two-party system. In theory, this system gives far more seats to the party with the most votes in a given election than the previous multi-seat format, making it easier for power to change hands.

Meanwhile, the introduction of government subsidies for political parties, along with a tighter political fund control law, has weakened the LDP’s intraparty factions — the main players of politics until the 1990s — because their power was largely based on opaque financial contributions from big businesses and interest groups.

The reforms implemented in the 1990s came to fruition when Ozawa helped the DPJ unseat the LDP in the historic 2009 elections.

“The change of government (to the DPJ) materialized thanks to (the single-seat) system,” Ozawa said in an interview published in a 2017 book. “Fifteen years after the 1994 system reforms, you now finally see the election results that were intended.”

Ichiro Ozawa, then president of the Democratic Party of Japan, leaves a news conference at DPJ headquarters in Tokyo in March 2009.
Ichiro Ozawa, then president of the Democratic Party of Japan, leaves a news conference at DPJ headquarters in Tokyo in March 2009. | BLOOMBERG

But Ozawa is no saint. He has his dark side, and his public image is far from that of a virtuous reformer.

He may appear to possess the ideas and political skills to change the country, but his abrasive behavior and inconsistency on policy made him one of the most divisive political figures of the Heisei Era.

The often-dour legislator behaved arrogantly toward other political leaders and abused some of his followers — especially those who worked for him. Former aides say he demanded absolute loyalty and obedience.

“He rejects any opinions that are different from his, however small the difference might be,” former Economic Planning Agency chief Hajime Funada, a former aide to Ozawa, said in an interview with the Tokyo Shimbun in April 2006.

Ozawa would rarely explain his intentions but would become furious when someone misinterpreted his thinking. This was repeated so many times that “almost all (of his aides) left him, just like me,” Funada said.

There are countless former lieutenants who parted ways with him. Among them are former construction minister Kishiro Nakamura, the late former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshi Kumagai, the late former Defense Agency chief Keisuke Nakanishi and current LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.

“Looking back, it’s quite difficult to think of any heartwarming episode involving Mr. Ozawa,” former Lower House member Tomohiro Ishikawa, who served as a secretary to Ozawa from 1996 to 2005, wrote in his book published in 2012.

Ozawa’s abrasive personality — coupled with his backroom maneuvering — may explain why every party he once belonged to eventually split into pro-Ozawa and anti-Ozawa groups. All, except for the LDP, eventually disintegrated — including the DPJ.

Hence Ozawa’s nickname: “The destroyer.”

A key mystery surrounding Ozawa is what the man actually wants to ultimately achieve through decades of struggling for power.

Ichiro Ozawa receives his lawmaker
Ichiro Ozawa receives his lawmaker’s pin on Jan. 14, 1970, after he was elected, at age 27, to the Lower House for the first time. | KYODO

Aside from his advocacy for electoral reform and helping to build a credible alternative to the LDP, Ozawa has often changed his key policies, some to the exact opposite of what he once espoused.

For example, in 1993 Ozawa caused a national sensation with his best-selling book “Blueprint for a New Japan,” in which he called for drastic deregulation to reinvigorate the economy and emphasized the importance of self-reliance, both for people and businesses. He also argued that the consumption tax should be raised from the 3 percent at that time to 10 percent to pay for drastic cuts in income and corporate taxes.

At the time, Ozawa’s neo-liberalistic economic policies won plaudits from pro-business voters and intellectuals.

But today, the main slogan of Ozawa’s Liberal Party is “People’s Lives First.” He’s come to oppose any increase in the consumption tax, which led him to leave the DPJ — significantly weakening the party and causing the demise of its short-lived rule.

On economic policy, he and his current Liberal Party now argue that the government should protect small businesses by correcting “excessive deregulation.”

Behind Ozawa’s political shape-shifting is his uncompromising focus on winning elections over consistent economic policies, according to Norihiko Narita, a professor emeritus at Surugadai University.

“If you ask if Ozawa is a man of policy ideals or a man of power games, I’d say he is the latter,” said Narita, a former chief secretary to Morihiro Hosokawa, who headed the 1993 non-LDP government as prime minister. During that short-lived period of non-LDP rule, Narita was in frequent contact with Ozawa, a Hosokawa ally.

“Ozawa firmly believes he needs the power to realize any of his policy ideas. And to win that power, you need to first win an election at all costs,” Narita said.

Narita said Ozawa possesses two contradictory faces: When he is mentally stable, he is very sharp and can make rational decisions. But “once he’s in a bad mood, he often acts like a child” and stops communicating with others.

And yet, the destroyer left a mark among voters that lives to this day.

Ichiro Ozawa, as secretary-general of the Democratic Party, attends a party executive meeting in the Diet in May 2010.
Ichiro Ozawa, as secretary-general of the Democratic Party, attends a party executive meeting in the Diet in May 2010. | KYODO

In spite of his likability issues, many Japanese see him as a strong leader — whether good or bad — who can overcome this country’s conformist mindset.

In fact, lawmakers have often turned to Ozawa when they sought a strong leader who can unite opposition forces, even though they are fully cognizant of his bad reputation.

In 2003, then-DPJ leader Naoto Kan approached Ozawa’s Liberal Party and later merged the two parties to win more conservative, pro-business voters. Six years later, they ousted the LDP from power.

But after Ozawa and his followers bolted from the DPJ in 2012, he has entered a period of ups and downs, struggling to become a real contender during the age of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His languishing on the political fringes has left Ozawa’s critics to assume that the once-proud political operator has lost his touch.

That assessment may be premature.

Last month, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party for the People, the second-largest opposition force, agreed to form a joint parliamentary group with the possibility of merging.

Facing a critical Upper House election this summer, the DPP is trying to shore up voter support by taking advantage of Ozawa’s image as a powerful politician.

“I know quite well about the ability, insight and personality of Mr. Ozawa. I told (the DPP members) that I want to borrow his insight” to form a larger group of opposition lawmakers, DPP Secretary-General Hirofumi Hirano said in late January.

Whether Ozawa will end up creating a credible opposition party is anyone’s guess. But if that idea comes to fruition, it would be fitting for Ozawa to top off the political turbulence of the Heisei Era with one more fight.

“Ozawa is an extremely rare politician in the history of Japanese politics. He is the only one who has survived since the 1980s,” Narita said. “All other politicians are dead or retired, but he is still active. He is the only politician like that.”

Did you know . . .

  • In 1989, Ichiro Ozawa became at age 47 the youngest-ever secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party.
  • Ozawa was a loyal aide to the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, a transformative leader and the godfather of Japan’s money politics.
  • In spite of his relative youth in 1991, Ozawa, then 49, interviewed three LDP heavyweights to select the next prime minister. He chose the 72-year-old Kiichi Miyazawa. The episode underscored Ozawa’s power and cemented his image as an arrogant “strong-arm” politician.
  • An avid player of go, Ozawa is regarded as one of the strongest players among Japan’s politicians.
  • He is known to detest reporters, especially young journalists. On the other hand, he loves pets. His particular favorites are Shiba Inu dogs.
  • Ozawa suffered a heart attack in 1991. Since then, he stopped smoking and usually takes a nap every day after lunch, according to Tomohiro Ishikawa, who served as his secretary from 1996 to 2005.

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