Japan from the inside out

Japan’s Democratic Party on a mudboat of its own

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 14, 2009

That’s life, that’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April,
Shot down in May
– That’s Life, Kelly Gordon and Dean K. Thompson, as performed by Frank Sinatra

Without bread, a stud can’t even rule an anthill.
– Lord Buckley, riffing on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

IT HAD LONG BEEN OBVIOUS to all but the most wishful of thinkers and rankest of hacks and sycophants that Ozawa Ichiro, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, would have to step down after his chief aide was arrested in a fund-raising scandal earlier this year. He finally did so on Monday after letting his party, the Diet, and the business of the nation twist slowly, slowly in the wind for more than two months. Rather than retire to write his memoirs and revise history while the iron is hot, however, he appears to be reverting to type–and to Japanese politics of the 1970s.

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

The scandal couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the DPJ. Newspaper polls in early January had at last showed a swing toward the party, though their internal polling at the end of November had been pointing to the capture of 260 out of 480 lower house seats. That would have given them an outright majority and enabled them to form a government.

The weekly Shukan Gendai reported in its 31 January edition that spirits were bright at the DPJ’s New Year party. Diet members are said to have slapped each other on the back and addressed each other as “Minister”. The 30 April edition of Shukan Bunshun quoted a reporter describing a political party intoxicated with itself, as members flooded headquarters with policy proposals and scavenged for political appointments.

The situation got so out of hand that Mr. Ozawa had to make the rounds of the candidates’ headquarters to tell them the election wouldn’t be that easy.

They should have listened.

Just a few weeks later, one pollster found the arrest and Mr. Ozawa’s subsequent mishandling of affairs could cost the DPJ as many as 46 seats in the next election. A Yomiuri/Waseda poll showed the number of respondents who were “disappointed” in the DPJ rose to 60%, up from an already high 50% in January. Only 45% thought they were capable of handling the reins of government, down from 51%. Meanwhile the number of people who found the LDP capable rose to 61% from 54% (though 73% were disappointed in them, too).

The DPJ members must have known in their hearts that Mr. Ozawa’s refusal to leave his position was killing them, yet few had the courage to say it when other people could hear them. Those who did at first were members of the party’s anti-Ozawa Maehara/Edano group (faction), including Maehara Seiji himself. Addressing the aide’s arrest and Mr. Ozawa’s excuses, he told a group in Kyoto:

“Even if it was legal, it would be a problem whether it’s acceptable to accept that amount of money. That amount of money would be inconceivable for me.”

The inconceivable amount for Mr. Maehara—once the party leader himself and still a group/faction boss—was roughly $US three million since 1995, with the possibility of still more to be uncovered. What he didn’t mention, but other party leaders later confirmed, was that the DPJ had instituted a policy in 2000 in which individual members were disallowed from accepting personal contributions from corporate donors. Not only was Mr. Ozawa thumbing his nose at those calling for his resignation, he flipped off his own party rules as well.

A more principled politician would have resigned immediately after his aide’s arrest to preserve his party’s chances, but no one would use that word to describe Mr. Ozawa, and few principled politicians become leaders in any party anyway. The DPJ promotes itself as the clean alternative to the LDP, but the arrest let all the air out of that already leaden balloon. The party leader held a tearful press conference in March in which he protested his innocence, ruled out a resignation, and vowed to fight on. Far from convincing anyone, his performance raised more questions than it answered and left his party vulnerable for the better part of two months during one of the most critical periods in postwar Japanese politics.

The fallout

The electorate was not impressed with what it saw. Polling after the press conference found that 79% of the public didn’t believe him and 66% thought he should quit as party head. (That 13-percentage-point differential makes one wonder whether cynicism has become the default position for some of the Japanese public.) The poll numbers never budged after that.

Komiyama Yoko, the DPJ’s shadow Education Minister and a member of Mr. Maehara’s group, was another one of the few who spoke out:

“The most important thing is to take an approach (to ensure) that we win the next election. I really think he ought to do us the favor of withdrawing at this point. I don’t think we’ll be able to win a difficult election by apologies and excuses.”

Less circumspect was one of the party’s three Supreme Advisors, Watanabe Kozo. Mr. Watanabe, who was elected as an independent to the Diet in 1969, joined the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, served in three Cabinet positions, and then fled to the DPJ, commented:

“He shouldn’t have cried. It’s one thing if a man cries over what happens to other people, but he can’t cry over something that happened to himself. The people seek a strong Ozawa—a crybaby Ozawa isn’t acceptable. After the press conference, one of the Ozawa toadies told some people he knew that he had suggested the tears. That’s just what I thought.”

Mr. Watanabe also noted that one of the biggest hits in the poll numbers had been among women, a group that generally favors the DPJ.

I am not a crook!

I am not a crook!

The tears reminded the public that Mr. Ozawa had also gotten weepy the last time he appeared at a critical press conference—in November 2007 when he withdrew his resignation as party head after his efforts to form a grand coalition with the Fukuda Administration blew up in his face. Whether the voters considered him a crybaby, or believed as Shakespeare that “ambition should be made of sterner stuff”, the result was the same. They wrote him off and didn’t change their minds.

Why should anyone have pretended to think otherwise? The voting public, not to mention the mass media, are unforgiving when politicians who sell themselves as cleaner than everyone else turn out be just as dirty as everyone else—particularly when they all assumed Mr. Ozawa was simply more successful at hiding the dirt to begin with.

By late April, the party’s dilemma was summed up when Komiyama Yoko told Mr. Maehara during a hallway conversation in the Diet building that they’d reached their limit. He responded: “No, we’ve already gone beyond the limit.”

But rather than oust their leader, the dismayed DPJ MPs resigned themselves to the situation. Ren Ho, (also known as Murata Renho; Noda group) a former magazine model and TV presenter now serving her first term in the upper house, and the party’s deputy minister in charge of pensions in the shadow cabinet, said:

“If Mr. Ozawa’s not going to quit, we’ll just have to wait until he does.”

Mr. Ozawa decided he would try to ride things out in the absence of a public outcry, or unless he was dealt the ace of spades from the prosecutorial deck of cards. By allowing him to do so, the party members were guilty of enabling behavior. One of his DPJ opponents, Edano Yukio, co-chair of the faction with Maehara Seiji, admitted that most members wanted Ozawa to stay on if the investigation didn’t spread to him. In a classic case of denying the obvious, some even suggested that the problem with the funds was only a “violation of the regulations”, and if the scandal went no further, it would constitute an Ozawa victory.

The bunker mentality

But the poll numbers showing public disapproval never changed, and Mr. Ozawa started exhibiting signs of a bunker mentality. There is a national invitational baseball tournament for high school boys held every year in Osaka during spring vacation. The team representing Iwate, Mr. Ozawa’s home prefecture, reached the finals (but lost). Party Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio suggested that he attend the championship game; public appearances at events such as those are catnip for politicians. He declined, however, saying, “I can’t very well go.”

A debate between party heads was held in the Diet on 28 November last year, and the consensus was that Mr. Ozawa outperformed Prime Minister Aso Taro. The LDP suggested a second round, but the DPJ head kept ducking the request. He finally agreed a scant few days before he resigned. Perhaps he only agreed because he knew he was going to resign.

Senior party members gingerly suggested that he needed to provide a more detailed explanation of the circumstances, both to the public and to themselves—a tacit admission that the explanation he gave at the press conference was so much lunchmeat. The pressure grew more intense for everyone; Mr. Hatoyama developed an ulcer in March from defending the indefensible, though he would not reveal it until later.

Some in the DPJ suggested their leader should resign if the Chiba gubernatorial election on 29 March turned out poorly for the party candidate. Mr. Ozawa went to Chiba to appear for the candidate, but heard discouraging news during a visit to campaign headquarters. A female volunteer told him to his face: “I’m hearing serious complaints over the telephone.”

Reports said there was a sharp, collective intake of breath from those nearby when this lowly campaign worker had the impertinence to deliver bad news to the boss himself, but Mr. Ozawa accepted it without a word.

The DPJ candidate wound up losing to Morita Kensaku, an independent formerly associated with the LDP and running with support from many local LDP politicians. He took 43% of the vote in a five-man field.

Mr. Ozawa still did not step down. The first question he was asked at a press conference to discuss the election was whether he thought the scandal had an effect on the results. Mr. Ozawa replied:

“For more than three weeks, all of you (reporters) have been working overtime reporting on this issue involving my aide, so I think there may have been an impact.”

That was yet another telltale sign of the bunker mentality. The DPJ claims the mantle of the clean government alternative, the party leader’s chief aide is arrested for his involvement in collecting more than three million dollars in illegal campaign contributions over 10 years from a dummy organization, and the first words out of his mouth when the public expresses its disapproval are to blame the press for covering the story. Did Mr. Ozawa read nothing about Watergate?

The blowback

Those outside the party had no reason to hold their tongues, however. Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party, a splinter group nominally aligned with the DPJ, was blunt. He alluded to the political paralysis caused by the party’s failure to clean up their mess, and to how the party appeared to the real world:

“During the lower house election campaign, it will be difficult to clear the air of the charge that Mr. Ozawa is a disgrace. He should sacrifice himself for the sake of allowing a DPJ victory…The DPJ is now in a brain dead state. Their hands and feet are bound and can’t do anything. This is not the time to be telling us to wait until the investigation is over. The people will draw the conclusion that Ozawa is trying to flee from justice after all. Yet no one in the DPJ speaks up…The voters will watch how they handle a crisis. It’s not my party, so I shouldn’t be telling them to do this or that, but I do want to tell them to take this more seriously.”

Shii Kazuo, head of the Japanese Communist Party, commented on the Ozawa justification that he broke no laws:

“Even if there isn’t a law, he could still resign of his own free will. “

But no one enjoyed watching the DPJ squirm more than the LDP. Speaking in Osaka, ruling party member Suga Yoshihide minced no words to describe how the DPJ Diet members avoided discussing the subject at a party meeting:

“Very few (of the members) expressed opinions. Those are the people who always demand an explanation of responsibility, yet they haven’t lifted a finger. The people’s verdict is that he hasn’t explained who is responsibile, yet the DPJ protects him and lets him continue in office. What a horrible party!” (hidoi seito)

On the same day, LDP Koizumian reformer Nakagawa Hidenao went so far as to suggest dissolving the Diet and holding a general election in May:

“If this were the ruling party, they (the DPJ) would say he should resign. The DPJ emphasized its clean hands regarding politics and money, but they support Mr. Ozawa’s remaining in office. All that’s left is for the voters to make a decision.”

When Aso Taro opponent Nakagawa, who seems to be simultaneously mulling the formation of his own party while trying to drag the LDP back to its reform stance under Prime Minister Koizumi, suggests a snap election under Mr. Aso’s leadership, the DPJ should have realized just how much of a hole it had dug itself.

Hamayotsu Toshiko, the acting chief representative of LDP coalition partner New Komeito, and their number two until last November, said:

“Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ are still clinging to the ways of the old LDP years ago.”

Funny she should say that. One of the few politicians of note outside the DPJ who defended Mr. Ozawa was Suzuki Muneo, a former LDP mini-baron who spent 437 days in jail after being found guilty of influence peddling in connection with local lumber contracts. That time behind bars is a record for a Diet member. He was also famously called “a trading company for scandal” to his face during questioning on the Diet floor. After his release from jail, he formed a vanity party and was returned to the Diet as a proportional representative.

The two men met privately in Mr. Ozawa’s Tokyo office, and during the meeting Mr. Suzuki offered his strong support and advice on handling problems related to political funds. The embattled DPJ leader must have found that comforting.

With Ozawa Ichiro in a cauldron up to his neck in boiling water as the cannibals were peeling turnips, the question remains: what took him so long? He was almost certainly driven by stubbornness, vanity, and an overdeveloped sense of pride. Add to that his understanding that stepping down meant he would never become prime minister.

Let me make myself perfectly clear...

Let me make myself perfectly clear...

That much would be clear to the casual observer. Less widely known, however, were the rumors from close associates of Mr. Ozawa that he was convinced he would never be arrested. His self-assurance was not based on a belief that he didn’t do anything wrong. Rather, he had applied himself to the study of campaign financing after the Lockheed scandal brought down Tanaka Kakuei, his patron as a young politician. Mr. Ozawa thought he had his tracks covered.

The ghost of scandals past

The manifestation of the ghost of Tanaka Kakuei also leads to the question of why his party didn’t insist that he be gone. Ms. Hamayotsu’s charge that the DPJ was behaving like the LPD of the bad old days is one that occurred to many people in Japan. Writing in the May issue of Shokun!, journalist Ito Atsuo argued that the Democratic Party of Japan as led by Ozawa Ichiro is the last real faction in the style of Tanaka Kakuei of the old Liberal Democratic Party—the Japanese version of Boss Tweed and his political machine. In other words, the new boss looks and acts a whole lot like the old boss did.

In addition to their shared preference for party organization, Mr. Ozawa is said to resemble his patron in another important aspect: his attitude toward political associates. As was the case with Tanaka Kakuei (and daughter Makiko), you’re either his slave or his enemy. He demands total obedience and has no patience with people who don’t offer it immediately. He is not interested in debate or explanations to people with different opinions. During his days as leader of the Liberal Party, he is said to have told an acquaintance:

“If a person can’t understand without an explanation, they won’t understand even if they’re given an explanation.”

Now you know why he briefly quit the party leadership in November 2007 when others objected to his idea of a coalition. (That Mr. Maehara and others of his group criticized their party leader so openly speaks to their degree of political courage. Mr. Maehara will never get a chance to lead the DPJ again as long as it stays as presently constituted.)

That’s also why he refused to meet with groups inside the party to provide them with a more detailed explanation of his fund-raising practices. His avoidance of those meetings with other party members continued before and during the week-long holidays at the beginning of May, which the party expected him to attend.

The most compelling evidence that Mr. Ozawa and his coterie were not congruent with reality came when it was reported that his allies in the party vowed that the crisis would be over at the end of April. The counterattack would begin in earnest after the early May holidays. Yet rather than mount the long-awaited defense, Mr. Ozawa chose that moment to resign his party position.

Of course Mr. Ozawa was disliked within the party, especially by its younger members. Senior party members had long told them to put aside their emotions and think realpolitik instead. The Asahi Shimbun reported that those senior members were working overtime to prevent a breakup. But they held their noses and stuck with him because no one else in the party was capable of organizing the members and their wildly incompatible philosophies into group capable of a credible political challenge to the LDP. They neutered themselves for a chance to be at the seat of power.

There was another reason that the DPJ members were hesitant to push Mr. Ozawa too hard. Here’s an off the record comment from a DPJ anti-Ozawa member to a reporter covering the party:

“We’re afraid that Mr. Ozawa will run off. It’s possible that he’d also bolt the party if he quits as party leader. If he takes the 50 people in his political group with him from the upper and lower houses of the Diet, he might plot a political realignment (without us). He won’t do that, however, as long as he’s party leader.”

This was not a case of a man seeing a twig in the dusk and mistaking it for a snake. Mr. Ozawa threatened to do just that in November 2007. Indeed, his entire career has been spent sloughing off his political skin and slithering through one party after another.

Even were he not to bolt, the party could still collapse of its own internal contradictions without his Soviet-style iron fist. The LDP has been waiting for that to happen since the party was formed, but so far has been waiting in vain. Many in the DPJ view him as some men view women: they can’t live with him, but they can’t live without him either.

What next?

Anyone who ventures to predict the actions of Japanese politicians is talking through the flimsiest of hats, but it’s worth looking at some of the possibilities for the immediate future.

A few DPJ supporters are excited at the departure of their party leader because the press won’t have Ozawa Ichiro to kick around any more. That sentiment might be both premature and ill-advised.

A survey of DPJ Diet members conducted early during the crisis revealed that the older members preferred either Acting President Kan Naoto or Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio as a successor, while the younger members backed Vice-President Okada Katsuya.

All three have held that post before, and all three have failed.

Mr. Kan is not running. That leaves Mr. Hatoyama, whom former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, his former faction leader in the LDP, once compared to “melted ice cream”, and Mr. Okada. If Mr. Okada is the answer, the only question can be, “What’s a good cure for insomnia”. Former New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was once derided as looking like the little man on top of the wedding cake; Mr. Okada is the Japanese version, except Mr. Dewey didn’t have those bags under his eyes. He was such a lackluster campaigner in the 2005 lower house election during his previous term as leader that it made the national news when a junior high school girl asked him why he didn’t smile more.

Why is this man laughing?

Why is this man laughing?

Most observers assumed that Mr. Hatoyama would not run because he had vowed during the crisis to resign his position if Ozawa Ichiro quit. But most observers should know better than to take politicians at their word. Just because a guy quits the job of party secretary-general doesn’t mean he can’t run for party president, and he has already announced he will stand for that office. After all, what’s integrity to a bonbon politician who knows this is his last chance of becoming prime minister at the head of the party he helped found?

Though it cuts no ice inside the party, the public seems to prefer Mr. Okada. An Internet survey conducted by Livedoor showed that he was favored by 37.12% of the respondents, while Mr. Hatoyama had less than half those numbers at 15.26. Maehara Seiji, who isn’t running (and probably never can for his Ozawa apostasy) even outpolled him at 19.16%.

A party that doesn’t get it–and doesn’t want to

Remember the comparisons of Ozawa Ichiro to former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei? Being driven out of office by the Lockheed scandal in the 1970s didn’t stop the latter from controlling LDP affairs from the back room. There are signs that Mr. Ozawa is still the chip off the old block and intends to keep pulling the strings in the party. He says he will help run the next election campaign, and there are indications he pushed for an early party election to ensure a Hatoyama victory.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that he will support Mr. Hatoyama in return for the latter’s servitude loyalty, but that does not necessarily mean that Mr. Okada would cross the boss were he to win. All three of these men are ex-LDP members. The story is told that when Mr. Okada ran in his first election for the Diet, he couldn’t persuade the LDP to endorse him. He eventually paid a visit to Ozawa Ichiro and begged for party support–on bended knee—and got it. He has been the devoted servant ever since.

It was also assumed that Yamaoka Kenji, the party’s Diet Affairs Committee Chairman, would leave his post in the event of an Ozawa departure. Mr. Yamaoka is Ozawa Ichiro’s lap pit bull, who came to the DPJ with him from the old Liberal Party. Were he also to step down, it might mean that the DPJ would become a little more cooperative when discussing LDP Diet proposals and drain off some of the bad blood that exists between the parties. (Mr. Yamaoka has a personality as repellent as that of Democratic Party hatchet man Paul Begala in the United States, though he is not the pencil-necked geek that the latter is.)

Here’s what Mr. Yamaoka said when he assumed the post in August 2007:

“Consultation between the two parties will not exist when I am (in that post).”

Now you know why there’s been government gridlock in the form of the “twisted Diet” since the DPJ’s victory in the 2007 upper house election. And why that will continue as long as Ozawa Ichiro has anything to say about it.

If Ozawa Ichiro continues to channel Tanaka Kakuei and pulls the levers from behind the curtain—a role he has always found much more to his liking—it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference if either Hatoyama Yukio or Okada Katsuya succeeds him. Under Mr. Ozawa, the party put its political manhood in a blind trust while they boarded a mudboat of their own. That they have morphed into their father’s LDP means that political machinations will always precede policy and principle. The only difference between them and the zombies back in charge of the LDP is that the latter have demonstrated a slight measure of competence in government.


* If there is anyone left who thinks the DPJ can still be taken at its word, they might consider this: The party is set to implement a policy of withholding support for candidates whose Diet seats have been handed down within the family as de facto hereditary positions, which is commonplace in Japan. It is yet another way they hope to contrast themselves with the LDP; one-third of the LDP’s MPs have parents who also served in the Diet, while the DPJ’s ratio is much lower at one-seventh.

The early indications are that Hatoyama Yukio—the man who was supposed to quit his party post—will be chosen as the new DPJ head in the Saturday election. He is the fourth generation of his family to serve in the Diet.

* Some DPJ cheerleaders are spinning the Ozawa retreat to the shadows as a step that clears the daylight for a DPJ victory in the next lower house election. It’s possible—anything is possible in Japanese politics—though the Nishinippon Shimbun, among many other sources, think the public’s response at this point is still a michisuu, or a mathematical unknown.

That is a rather sunny view of the current situation. To believe it, one would also have to believe that the public is ready to forgive and forget. They will have to forgive the putatively clean party for being just as dirty as the dirty party, forgive both the party leader and the party for blocking national traffic since the beginning of the year, forget that their own allies have called Mr. Ozawa a disgrace and the DPJ as a whole brain dead, and forget that the name of the only man outside the DPJ to publicly support him is synonymous with lying to the public about corruption.

Before they start counting the skins of the raccoons they haven’t caught (the Japanese version of counting the chickens before they’ve hatched), they might want to point their Internet browsers to Our Friend Google and search on the terms “Pangloss”, “Pollyanna”, and “Gerald Ford”. Those who prefer to search in Japanese might add the term “Hata Tsutomu”.

* It’s also been suggested that the DPJ could lead a coalition in partnership with the LDP reform group. Again, anything is possible, but if Ozawa Ichiro is still calling the shots, that coalition would likely have the functional lifespan of a mayfly. A breakaway LDP reform group would find Mr. Ozawa even less appealing than the younger members of his own party, and unlike the DPJ reformers, the LDP renegades would by then have shown they had the cojones to have actually bucked party leadership. The government could sell tickets to the meetings at which Yamaoka Kenji tried to give any LDP rebels their marching orders.

Additionally, the LDP reformers tend to be small-government budget hawks that won’t be giving the glad eye (or turning a blind one) to the labor unions backing the Ozawa wing of the DPJ, the phantasmic spending proposals in the party’s platform, or the anti-reformers Mr. Ozawa has chosen as allies.

* The lower house Diet members Okada Katsuya and independent Eda Kenji present an interesting contrast. Both men started their careers as bureaucrats in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and both resigned to purse political careers. Mr. Eda has always been independent of parties and is one of the most outspoken leaders in the effort to break the stranglehold of the bureaucracy on Japanese politics and government. He is the foremost ally of LDP renegade Watanabe Yoshimi. Click on the tag below to read more.

The DPJ's point man for pensions

The DPJ's point man for pensions

Meanwhile, Mr. Okada started out in the LDP and passed through a couple of other parties before winding up in the DPJ. His primary responsibility for the past couple of years under Ozawa Ichiro’s leadership has been to organize and hold fund-raising galas to collect money from corporate contributors for the party. He was ordered to cease and desist after the arrest of Mr. Ozawa’s aide, but that was like closing the barn door after the horse had already galloped into the next county and sired a new foal.

* If there is a third rail in domestic Japanese politics, it is the national pension system. More politicians have gotten in trouble over that issue than any other. Yet, the party that considers itself a haven for policy wanks has given the portfolio for national pensions in the shadow cabinet to Ren Ho, a rookie member of the upper house with no demonstrated expertise in the field. She did, however, spend the better part of 15 years appearing on television in commercials and as a program host and news reader.

So much for the claim of policy wankery in the DPJ. The man who said that politics is show business for ugly people mustn’t have seen Ms. Ren.

2 Responses to “Japan’s Democratic Party on a mudboat of its own”

  1. Martin F said

    “Melted ice cream”? How do you know such things? I mean, I have your blog as one of my favourites, and you just never disappoint. This has got to be the best write-up of Ozawa’s fall from grace. Anywhere.

    Incidentally, the “opposition party aide accepts bribe,” meme work well in Britain too. “Andrew MacKay resigns as adviser to Tory leader as former Labour minister faces questions over £16,000 mortgage payments” according to the Times. No word that Mr Cameron will resign, just yet. Perhaps Ozawa-san can give him a call with some advice. What a world we live in, you’d think there was no financial/environmental/terrorist crisis going on at all.

  2. […] of Japan’s main opposition party has shifted from the corruption-tainted Ichiro Ozawa to Yukio Hatoyama, Ozawa’s blood-blooded […]

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