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No easy option with Japan’s Ozawa Ichiro

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In Brief

Ozawa Ichiro has escaped indictment by the Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office again. Once again, his former secretaries were not quite so lucky, with three, including sitting Diet member Ishikawa Tomohiro, being indicted for political funds violations.

Michael Cucek rightly points to the gross misconduct of the PPO in its Ahab-like pursuit of Ozawa — and perhaps the more egregious campaign by the media to paint Ozawa as the conniving, monstrous puppet master of the Hatoyama government.


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But I cannot treat Ozawa’s escape from prosecution as a victory for the prime minister and the DPJ, and cannot but wonder whether the DPJ wouldn’t be better off without its secretary-general.

If anything, the indictment of three of his former aides, even as Ozawa survives with a vote of confidence from the prime minister, will continue to be a drag on the government. As in the days when Ozawa was in charge and Hatoyama his secretary-general, Hatoyama sounds like Ozawa’s chief apologist, explaining Ozawa’s behavior to a sceptical public. Except, of course, Hatoyama is now the prime minister of Japan.

Ozawa’s presence at the head of the DPJ would be less of a problem for the Hatoyama cabinet if it had been able to dominate the media and dictate the narrative being told about the government. But the Hatoyama government has been so ineffectual in its public relations — not entirely its fault seeing as how certain publications are serving as the LDP’s partners in opposition— that everything said or done by the government in relation to Ozawa contributes to the media’s narrative of a government under Ozawa’s thumb. Instead of reporting on the remarkable changes the Hatoyama government has made to the policymaking process, the media has been able to fixate on the superficial resemblance between the current government and the LDP in its heyday (which Ozawa of course participated in). As I’ve said before, I’m not convinced that a DPJ government with Ozawa wielding outsized influence is worse than the LDP government in which an army of backbenchers wielded influence, in combination with the bureaucracy that was able to undermine all but the most determined prime ministers — and even determined prime ministers like Koizumi Junichiro did not win every battle with the backbenchers.

What should the Hatoyama government, Ozawa, and the DPJ do going forward? As Hokkaido University’s Yamaguchi Jiro — a DPJ sympathiser — notes, the fate of political change and with it the Japanese people’s hope for their democracy hang in the balance. He recommends that Ozawa let the trial proceed and let the PPO’s evidence (or lack thereof) speak for itself. At the same time, he suggests that Ozawa forthrightly answer every question surrounding doubts about his political funds in the court of public opinion. I wonder whether Ozawa is capable of this. I know that Hatoyama and other DPJ leaders are not capable of making Ozawa do it. At the very least, Ozawa has to restrain himself and at least appear as if he is the prime minister’s subordinate, not his equal (or superior).

Meanwhile, the Hatoyama government must fundamentally reconsider how it presents itself to the public via the media. The time of letting the facts speak for themselves has passed, because the facts about the government do not speak for themselves. The government needs begin aggressively making its case. Whether that will entail a new chief cabinet secretary, a media strategy team attached to the prime minister’s office, or some other scheme will depend on the government, but the current arrangement is simply not working. And the prime minister needs to start showing some ability to lead, or step down.

No matter how skilled a campaigner he is, no matter how zealous a reformer he is, Ozawa’s baggage imperils the government — and more than that, it jeopardises Japan’s political future and provides further impetus to cynicism among the Japanese people. There is no easy answer to the Hatoyama government’s dilemma. Fire Ozawa, and it loses a skilled campaigner trusted among party supporters in the provinces. Retain Ozawa, and the prime minister continues to look weak and the media continues to feast upon the Ozawa scandal.

Ultimately, I fear that Hatoyama is simply incapable of solving this dilemma and saving his government.

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