OSAKA — With the post-general election honeymoon over, the Japanese public has become increasingly aware that Ichiro Ozawa, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is the puppet-master behind Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s Cabinet.

Although he distances himself from formal policymaking within the executive branch, Ozawa in fact masterminds the entire legislative process, including the budget and appropriations. He has centralized the DPJ’s contacts with lobbyists at his office in the Diet. He also exercises a total grip over the allocation of the DPJ’s state subsidy to individual DPJ legislators. Alas, Hatoyama controls only the narrow field of policy.

Ozawa’s political style is that of his mentor, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1972-1974), who became the longtime boss of the biggest faction of the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after his resignation following bribery charges. Together with other factions, Tanaka commanded a majority within the LDP and remained the party’s kingmaker and string-puller in successive LDP governments, perfecting the LDP’s quasi-social-democratic combination of export-led growth and pork-barrel wealth redistribution. Recently, Ozawa had a visit that he made to Tanaka’s tombstone televised, thereby holding himself up to the public as Tanaka’s heir.

With the LDP suffering from organizational sclerosis, Ozawa and some four dozen fellow legislators of the Tanaka faction broke away from the LDP in 1993 in a bid to build a two-party system. Since then, and until the DPJ’s victory in the 2008 Upper House election, Ozawa was almost always at the center of political battles against the LDP, building an effective political machine by making the most use of the art of patronage. In fact, Ozawa has established one of the largest financial war chests of any political party, using tactics reminiscent of Tanaka. Three of Ozawa’s current and former political aides were recently arrested on suspicion of falsifying political funds reports for Ozawa’s funds management organization.

Ironically, Ozawa’s power results from the rise and fall of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the LDP. Having pledged to destroy the LDP, Koizumi implemented exemplary reforms that took the spoils away from special-interest groups, which merely accelerated the LDP’s enfeeblement.

Behind Koizumi’s pro-reform slogans was an intraparty factional struggle with the dominant Tanaka faction, whose seemingly invincible political machine and electoral constituencies were anchored to public works involving special-interest groups, particularly civil engineering and construction firms.

Koizumi slashed a large portion of the budgets for public works and abandoned the rural population, which depended on a variety of redistributive schemes. Instead, Koizumi appealed to an electoral majority comprising urban and suburban swing voters. But, while Koizumi successfully knocked out the Tanaka faction within the LDP, many of Tanaka’s adherents, led by Ozawa, had re-established themselves by colonizing and taking over the DPJ.

Unas Koizumi’s reforms stalled, and as LDP governments under Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso ran adrift, Ozawa-proposed wealth redistribution captured the hearts and minds not only of rural voters, but also of city dwellers displeased at the fraying social safety net.

Now that the DPJ has won the most recent Upper and Lower House elections, Ozawa’s faction has become the largest by far within the party. Moreover, there are several veterans of the old Tanaka faction in the Cabinet, including Hatoyama himself and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada.

Now the public is increasingly disenchanted with the DPJ, which it had counted on to jump-start Japanese politics. Instead of that happening, the country faces the grotesque revival of a domestic variant of the Cold War structure. Formerly, the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP) disguised their ideological confrontation, at least publicly, while making deals under the table after behind-the-scenes negotiations. This was key to the one-party dominant system in which the LDP maintained a majority in the Diet while the JSP laid low as the largest opposition party.

Today, Ozawa and the DPJ’s Tanaka veterans, who lead a party overwhelmingly composed of newly elected, amateurish lawmakers, deal directly with former socialists and other populist spinoffs from the LDP, in both the Cabinet and the Diet. It is no wonder that the two regimes have many domestic and foreign/security policies in common.

Prosecutors have so far taken an aggressive approach to the cases involving Ozawa’s aides, just as they once did with Tanaka. But Ozawa remains combative, hinting that the two sides are engaged in a grudge match — and knowing that his faction can intervene through the ruling DPJ to shake up the personnel, budget and operations of the prosecutors’ office.

In Japan’s season of political discontent, it seems that there is nothing new under the sun.

Masahiro Matsumura is professor of international politics at Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku (St. Andrew’s University), Osaka. © 2010 Project Syndicate

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.