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People’s Life First / Kizuna
People's Life Comes First Party

Ichiro Ozawa, nicknamed the “shadow shogun” for his behind-the-scenes deal-making, is seen as an old-style, behind-the-scenes powerbroker. But tainted by funding scandals, he is considered unelectable as prime minister. Still, few Japanese doubt that he has, and will continue to, cast a large shadow over the country's politics. Veteran Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa, who resigned from the ruling party over plans to raise sales tax, formed a new opposition party. Ozawa left the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) along with 48 other MPs on 02 July 2012, forming the third largest in parliament's lower house. Ozawa had been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda — a member of the DPJ — and his controversial plan to double the sales tax to address a massive government debt. He said he would focus on reducing Japan's reliance on nuclear power. The People's Life Comes First Party (Kokumin no seikatsu ga daiichi in Japanese) is the fourth party he had formed in a political career spanning four decades.

Ichiro Ozawa was president of the DPJ from April 2006 until May 2009, when he stepped down in the wake of a funding scandal. Known as "the Destroyer" for his pivotal role in the creation and subsequent break-up of a number of small political parties on his journey from the LDP to the DPJ, Ichiro Ozawa helped form the first non-LDP administration in 1993 before leaving the party. Many observers cite his decision to forgo the top job at that time as evidence that he prefers to wield power behind the scenes. His health also continued to be a cause of concern, with some hinting that his heart condition could actually limit his ability to lead. By 2008 Ozawa had to make serious adjustments to his daily schedule and diet, and a 2008 article in one of Japan's weekly magazines noted his frequent absences from the Lower House during afternoon deliberations. Allegations of financial scandals involving his sizeable real estate holdings were often mentioned by the press as another possible roadblock to his election as Prime Minister. Ozawa did not take on the post of Prime Minister, but continued to wield power behind the scenes.

In the September 2006 DPJ presidential election, only Ozawa threw his hat in the ring and no election was held. In the 2007 Upper House election, Ozawa took full advantage of the labor vote, successfully orchestrating the DPJ's landslide victory. By 2008 Ozawa was widely acknowledged as the key to holding the party together, but there was no unanimity as to what might happen if the party gained power, or if Ozawa stepped down. Some conjecture that the DPJ will implode within some relatively brief period of time, leading either to a return of the LDP or some sort of political realignment. A few even posited the theory that the former Socialist Party elements within the DPJ might seek to take advantage of the political capital they have earned for keeping a low profile by claiming the spoils of an electoral victory. Some DPJ lawmakers registered their disappointment that Ozawa ran unopposed in the party's September 2008 leadership race, eliminating the possibility of open debate.

Although no one within the DPJ questioned Ozawa's ability to engineer successful election campaigns (as he did the DPJ's Upper House victory in July 2007), party distrust of him deepened following a number of missteps. His aborted attempt to form a grand coalition in November 2007, as well as his absence from a highly symbolic vote against the anti-terror special measures bill in January 2008, weakened Ozawa's hold on the party. Furthermore, a number of DPJ Diet members remained concerned that Ozawa may still harbor grand coalition intentions. This concern, combined with frictions between Ozawa and others in the party, turned some DPJ groups against him. As the BOJ governor issue demonstrated, these groups are coalescing and increasingly impacting the party's policy decisions.

Ozawa was arguably the most powerful man in Japan during Hatoyama's tenure. To strengthen his base, by 2008 Ozawa had established a new intra-party parliamentary league of Diet members who once served as local assembly members and as heads of municipalities. The groups within the DPJ that continued to support Ozawa include his own group and the former SP and DSP groups, or about 71 politicians. The "anti-Ozawa coalition" included the Hatoyama, Kan, Maehara, and Noda groups and numbers around 80 politicians. Roughly 80 politicians, or one-third of the DPJ's 223 total Diet members, remained on the fence [this total was about double the 113 elected on the DPJ ticket in the 2005 elections, reflecting massive defections from the LDP].

Ozawa had argued for greater "autonomy" within the U.S.-Japan security alliance, particularly with regard to decision-making. In the past, he expressed support for close consultations, but he also accused the LDP of failing to consider Japan's national interests when pressured by the United States. By 2008 his rhetoric had become more stridently anti-U.S., a move intended to position the DPJ for the looming Lower House elections. He continued to argue for wrapping the national security of Japan in the broad mantle of the UN, and limiting Japan's overseas activities to those covered by a UN mandate. He stated his opposition to revising the current interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, although other voices within the DPJ support constitutional revision of some kind.

Ozawa had grown increasingly difficult to read over time, isolating himself from daily contact with party lawmakers and relying more and more on a very small inner circle of advisors. Given Ozawa's strong support for the Alliance during his years as an LDP power broker, some questioned whether his later positions on security issues represented a true change in thinking, or were merely a matter of political expediency for tactical advantage. Countless DPJ lawmakers and staffers have assured official visitors from Washington during 2008 that Ozawa had not really changed his stripes, but is focused on achieving a change in government at any price. In response to those who questioned his intellectual integrity for straying so seemingly far from the rather more hawkish and nationalist positions laid down in his LDP days, or in his 1993 book, "Blueprint for a New Japan," Ozawa supporters asserted that his view of Japan as a more "normal country" had always presumed a more equal partnership with the United States.

By 2008 Ozawa's stock was going down, as missteps led to increasing friction with both the party's leadership and rank-and-file. In addition, his personal approval rating was lower than PM Fukuda's and his disapproval rating was higher. Some members believed that Ozawa's political style, reminiscent of old-school LDP politics, was too reliant on courting interest groups' votes and negotiating behind closed doors. They believed this made the DPJ too much like the LDP and threatened the party's existence. For example, during the Bank of Japan (BOJ) Governor selection process, although Ozawa initially signaled his willingness to support former Ministry of Finance (MOF) Vice Minister Toshiro Muto as the new BOJ Governor, the Maehara and Noda groups in the DJP strongly opposed Muto because they believed his MOF background would impede his ability to separate fiscal and monetary policy-making. Ozawa eventually came around to their way of thinking and opposed Muto and the other MOF candidates. Ozawa's switch to a tough stance was a signal to anti-Ozawa groups of his willingness to work with them. But the DPJ's support rate dropped due to its handling of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) Governor issue.

In March 2009, one of Ozawa's aides, Takanori Okubo, was arrested for allegedly breaking the Political Funds Control Law. Ozawa stepped down from the presidency of Japan's largest opposition party in May 2009. The DPJ went on to win the August 2009 general election by a landslide.

In September 2010 Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan, faced Ichiro Ozawa in the election for DPJ Presient, and the two candidates had very different views on whether a direct intervention in the market to weaken the yen was really warranted and needed. Naoto Kan had tried to stem the tide within his government to resort to direct intervention. Ozawa pledged to turn around the country's moribund economy with old-fashioned spending. Kan defeated challenger Ichiro Ozawa. Kan won 721 votes, compared with Ozawa's 491 ballots, a much wider gap than was predicted.

Prosecutors sought three years' imprisonment for Ozawa for violating the Political Funds Control Law by conspiring with three of his ex-aides to falsify reports issued by his political fund management body Rikuzankai in 2004 and 2005 concerning a ¥400 million land deal in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. Ozawa was acquitted April 26th, 2012 on charges of violating fund raising laws, setting up a possible showdown in the country's ruling party. The Tokyo District Court said there was no evidence that Ozawa knowingly falsified reports to hide a $5 million loan he made to his political fund-raising body to facilitate a land deal in 2004.

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Page last modified: 01-08-2012 20:14:21 ZULU