Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, is theoretically subordinate to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who is also the DPJ president. Ozawa has even stated that all policy matters must be decided by the government, not by the party. Yet, in reality, he has established a political machine that is more powerful than Hatoyama’s.

Ozawa’s primary interest at the moment seems to lie in winning the Upper House election next summer. Currently, his DPJ has an overwhelming majority in the Lower House, but its seats in the Upper House fall short of a majority, forcing the prime minister to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party, which do not necessarily follow the same ideologies as the DPJ.

During the second week of November, when the government faced important events both diplomatically and domestically, Ozawa left Tokyo to visit a Buddhist temple in Koyasan in western Japan, apparently to seek the backing of the Rev. Yukei Matsunaga, head of a religious sect with which the temple is associated and concurrently president of the Japan Buddhist Federation.

Winning the support of various organizations ahead of the election is of much greater importance to Ozawa than managing party affairs. That is why he asked Azuma Koshiishi, head of the DPJ Upper House caucus, to look after the daily routine during his absence, even though Koshiishi is not known for his skills in achieving intraparty harmony.

While Ozawa was away, his top lieutenants kept a close eye on freshman legislators to make sure they did not take part in any gathering not sanctioned by Ozawa. The more inexperienced party members are said to be always fearful of being labeled “anti-Ozawa.” Such pressure, though, does not come directly from Ozawa himself, but indirectly from his powerful proteges.

The timing of his visit to the Koyasan temple — coming only two days before U.S. President Barack Obama visited Tokyo and only a day before the government began screening projects for budgetary consideration — seemed to indicate apathy toward major policy matters.

When a DPJ lawmaker asked if he should comply with Prime Minister Hatoyama’s request to take part in the screening, Ozawa is said to have advised him to “just disregard it because that exercise is not going to work.”

Ozawa has said he is trying to refrain from speaking up on major policy matters because, he says, his words could lead to a double power structure of the government and the ruling party. Contrary to what he says, though, he has created a liaison council among the coalition partner leaders and a similar body between the Cabinet and the DPJ. Both bodies have become a de facto arena for political figures to seek his consent before doing something.

Ozawa has also “reformed” the system for accepting political petitions. Under the new system, petitioners and lobbyists are banned from filing their requests directly with Cabinet members or other powerful politicians. Instead, they must go through the office of the DPJ secretary general — Ozawa himself.

Thus far greater power has been concentrated in Ozawa than in Prime Minister Hatoyama, even though the latter led the DPJ to a historic victory in the general election on Aug. 30.

On the other hand, Ozawa is the very person who can stop Hatoyama’s government from going down a winding road. For example, Hatoyama seeks to revise the 2006 agreement between Tokyo and Washington under which the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station on the southern island of Okinawa is to be relocated to the less populated area of Henoko, also on Okinawa. While the United States has pressed Hatoyama for an early implementation of the agreement, he has so far failed to clarify what he is going to do. Ozawa has kept silent.

Some Ozawa critics say it’s not that he is “refraining from speaking up” but that he is “incapable of making any statement” because he lacks a clear-cut political philosophy and strategy. His continued resentment of how the U.S. government pushed him against the wall during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War is said to have led to his adopting the slogan of creating a “more equal relationship with the United States.”

During his visit to the Koyasan temple, he drew bitter criticism when he attributed “the current impasse in Western society to a civilization based on the exclusionary nature of Christianity.” By contrast, he added, “Buddhism is much more broad-minded and open to everybody and everything.” If that’s so, how does he explain the exclusionary manner in which he has dissolved political parties of his own creation in the past?

Some DPJ leaders responsible for Diet tactics have been thrown into chaos because of the inconsistency of instructions from Ozawa. On Nov. 12, he told them to see to it that all government-sponsored bills passed before the Diet session adjourned. When the DPJ came under fire for voting unilaterally on one bill in a Lower House committee — in the absence of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which later boycotted the Lower House plenary session — Ozawa changed his instruction to “move more cautiously.”

One thing is certain: What is most important to Ozawa at the moment is to concentrate maximum power in himself. Any policy matters aimed at improving people’s lives are trivial by comparison. The DPJ slogan of “protecting people’s lives” sounds empty under this dictator.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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