The recent change of government in Japan, resulting from Yoshiro Mori’s replacement of the ailing Keizo Obuchi as prime minister, was accompanied by another important development: the end of a conflict between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka and Liberal Party leader Ichiro Ozawa. The behind-the-scenes battle that had continued for several years ended in a total victory for Nonaka when Ozawa was forced to leave the governing coalition made up of the LDP, LP and New Komeito. After rocking Japanese politics with his strong-arm tactics for years, Ozawa is now politically isolated.

There is widespread speculation that Obuchi’s stroke was triggered by one-on-one talks that he held with Ozawa, an old friend of his, the night before. Immediately after the talks, Obuchi reportedly lost the ability to use or understand words.

According to political insiders, Ozawa told Obuchi during the talks that Nonaka was masterminding efforts to drive a wedge between him and his followers by urging them to leave the boss. Ozawa reportedly demanded Nonaka’s ouster and asked to rejoin the LDP, from which he had bolted. Obuchi turned down Ozawa’s proposal and decided to let Ozawa leave the ruling alliance. Intense stress during the negotiations triggered Obuchi’s sudden collapse, according to the insiders.

There is no way of independently confirming what Obuchi and Ozawa discussed, since Obuchi is incapacitated and Ozawa is unlikely to make disclosures that could hurt him politically.

The Nonaka-Ozawa conflict was started by Ozawa, according to Nonaka’s aides, after Ozawa called for the establishment of an election system based on single-seat constituencies. Through sophistry he obtained support for his proposal from the media, academics and the opposition forces as well.

With his proposal, Ozawa sought to perpetuate political rule by leaders of an LDP faction once headed by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, officials such as the late Deputy Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru and former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Ozawa argued that the single-seat constituency system would help create a system of two major parties capable of ruling the nation. The present election system combining proportional representation and single-seat constituencies was later established. After Ozawa bolted the LDP over policy differences, the LDP fell from power, and a non-LDP government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, controlled by Ozawa, briefly took power.

The first general election based on single-seat constituencies, as well as proportional representation, was held in 1996. Ironically, Ozawa’s Shinshinto Party, which was at a disadvantage as an opposition party, suffered a crushing loss to the LDP. Many Shinshinto members later defected to the LDP, which again became the ruling party.

Ozawa, who was relegated to the leadership of the minor Liberal Party, apparently changed his strategies and schemed to return to the LDP leadership. Insiders say his strategies envisioned these alternatives:

* A new governing coalition would be created by merging the LP and LDP conservatives such as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama and current LDP policy chief Shizuka Kamei. Liberals such as then LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato would be ousted from the party. The new conservative coalition, if established, would replace the then governing alliance of the LDP, the Social Democratic Party and New Party Sakigake, which was under the control of LDP liberals.

* The LP would join the LDP, allowing Ozawa to regain power in the ruling party.

It is an open secret that Nakasone persistently asked Obuchi, who was also LDP president, to allow Ozawa to rejoin the LDP. Kamei often called for the creation of a new conservative administration. It is also common knowledge that Nonaka, aware of Ozawa’s behind-the-scenes moves, schemed to isolate Ozawa by inviting some LP lawmakers to join the LDP.

Ozawa lost the battle with Nonaka because the latter is a consummate political strategist known for his flexibility and careful planning. Nonaka once bowed deeply to Ozawa, his former nemesis, to establish an LDP-LP coalition. Ozawa, on the other hand, is known for his dictatorial political style. Unable to tolerate differences with his aides, he is known to have ousted some of his followers from the party ranks.

Nonaka often calls for a national soul-searching over World War II. Ozawa is often praised in the United States as the best Japanese politician for promoting U.S. interests. As a politician, Nonaka aims much higher than Ozawa does.

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