Japan from the inside out

Ichiro Ozawa’s love call to the Social Democrats

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2007

WHAT SORT OF POLITICIAN is Ichiro Ozawa? This report from Kyodo should answer the question: Someone more interested in building power structures, no matter how unstable, than in building a better form of politics and government.

Kyodo says that Mr. Ozawa, the president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party, convinced executives of the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers Union and the Japan Teachers Union to coax the Social Democratic Party, the remnants of the former Socialist Party, into integrating with the DPJ.


The DPJ president’s plan failed to get off the ground because shortly afterward, his talks with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for creating a grand coalition blew up in his face, nearly taking Mr. Ozawa with them.

The SDP didn’t care for the idea either, calling it arrogant. But the two labor unions think the merger will happen eventually, and Kyodo says Mr. Ozawa is still interested in it.

Here’s the tastiest morsel:

The proposal was presented by Ozawa to the top leaders of the two unions at a meeting at a Tokyo restaurant Oct. 29, the sources said.

In short, Mr. Ozawa was trying to cut a deal with the unions at the same time he was trying to cut a deal with the LDP to create a grand coalition and install himself as Deputy Prime Minister. It’s as if he were the political equivalent of the man in the circus trying to balance spinning plates on the ends of sticks.

For the last two months, speculation has been rampant that Mr. Ozawa’s goal for the next lower house election is to gain enough seats to form a government in coalition with either the New Komeito Party (the LDP’s current partners), or a splinter group from the LDP. With this report, it would seem that rather than a big tent, his concept of a political party more closely resembles an outdoor swimming pool.

What does he stand to gain? It’s difficult to see how it would be a lot. The SDP now has only seven members in the lower house and five in the upper house, and they’re unlikely to improve on that total in future elections. It would require a very narrowly defined set of circumstances for those numbers to tip the balance of power.

The DPJ would get the benefit of labor union muscle during election campaigns, but it has union support already.

What does he stand to lose? Perhaps quite a lot. It would be more entertaining than professional wrestling to observe meetings of the DPJ brass trying to iron out a coherent platform while the irresistible forces met the immovable objects in the same room. The SDP is still stridently pacifist and left-wing, and the DPJ contains a few comfort women/Nanjing Massacre deniers more extreme than any in the LDP.

That’s not to mention those party members who still back former party president Seiji Maehara, a supporter of robust Japanese defense capabilities and the amendment of the Constitution’s Article 9, the peace clause, to realize that objective.

Could it be that Mr. Ozawa’s ultimate goal is similar to that of former Prime Minister Koizumi: Forcing the two parties to break up and reconstitute themselves along more sharply defined ideological lines? (Or, to put it less violently, conjugate like two paramecium, exchange nuclear material, and swim off again.)

It’s worth remembering that Mr. Ozawa has pulled these particular strings before. He was the puppeteer in 1993 when an eight-party coalition replaced the LDP in power for the first time in 38 years, and the SDP was one of the eight invited to the party.

They were also the first to leave when they became uncomfortable with the puppet master’s insistence on a more internationally assertive Japan. That led to the coalition’s demise and the return of the LDP to power.

Why should anyone think it will be different this time?

Somebody needs to take Ichiro Ozawa aside and explain to him the differences between politics and statecraft (as well as strategy and tactics), and why those differences are important. But it’s unlikely that a man with a political career stretching over four decades would begin to listen.

Japan today is in desperate need of a new vision for government and a new political paradigm for making it happen. It is clear that the DPJ has an essential role in formulating that new vision.

But it is also becoming increasingly clear that Ichiro Ozawa is a man trapped by his own past and his retrograde view of politics. He will have little of substantial value to contribute to that effort, any future electoral success nothwithstanding.

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