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Ozawa’s departure, the revival of the DPJ and the future of Japan

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In Brief

This last 2 July, Kenji Yamaoka, the right hand man of Ichiro Ozawa strode into the offices of Azuma Koshiishi, the secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Tucked underneath Yamaoka’s arm was a large envelope containing letters from himself, Ozawa and an unknown number of other members of the DPJ, requesting leave from the party. The break-up of the DPJ — long prophesied, much discussed and expected to be ugly — had begun.


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But the envelope contained far fewer letters than many in the DPJ had feared and, in fact, bore wonderful news.

Despite Ozawa’s and Yamaoka’s best efforts to cajole, threaten and entice members of the once mighty bloc of 200 or so DPJ members seen as beholden to Ozawa or his puppet former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, the envelope contained only 52 letters of resignation: 40 from members of the House of Representatives, 12 from members of the House of Councillors.

The 40 representatives represented a huge fall from the 57 members of the House who had broken ranks with the party seven days earlier to vote against a trio of government reform bills, including the all-important rise in the consumption tax. The 40 rebels were also far from the 55 needed for the DPJ to lose its majority in the House and thus control of the government.

The news was only going to get better. Within hours of Yamaoka’s letter drop, two representatives withdrew their resignations. By the end of the next day another had joined their ranks, while a fourth declared that though he was still resigning from the DPJ, he was going to serve in the Diet as an independent.

Many credit Ozawa with having engineered the string of electoral victories culminating in the 2009 House of Representatives landslide that brought the DPJ to power, but he has since become the party’s greatest liability. Nothing had pushed the public support levels for the party down as much as his presence and influence on party affairs. Nothing is likely to raise them more than his departure together with his closest and most troublesome allies.

Ozawa’s auto-purge has redrawn the contours of Japan’s political map. His departure was felt most strongly by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party–New Komeito alliance. With Ozawa gone and the DPJ still holding the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the opposition seems to have lost the crutch upon which it had been propping up its objections to the government’s policy programs.

The success of the anti-tax, pro-growth Your Party in the 2010 House of Councillors elections — the primary cause of the DPJ’s losing control of that House and thus the ability to implement the policies outlined in its manifesto — was directly attributable to public disgust at Ozawa.

The birth of the Ishin no Kai (Association for the Restoration), led by the youthful, media-savvy Osaka City mayor Toru Hashimoto can also be traced to Ozawa’s effect on politics. Regional pride has largely driven the popularity of the Ishin no Kai and a similar movement in Japan’s third largest metropolitan area of Nagoya, but much of the discontent with the current central government has been fuelled by voter disappointment in the DPJ’s inability to bring Ozawa to heel.

Now that the nation’s greatest political demon has defenestrated himself it is far less certain that the Ishin no Kai, which was planning to take the leap into national politics, can continue to expand into other parts of the country.

For Prime Minister Noda and the DPJ, Ozawa’s departure clears the playing field of political distractions, allowing Noda to take on challenges at a measured pace and one at a time. The passage of the legislation permitting the government to issue bonds in order to pay for this year’s national budget is Noda’s next challenge, and the LDP’s and New Komeito’s control of the House of Councillors could cause him trouble.

Noda has so far been adept at exploiting his opponents’ penchants for self-destruction — and he has further tools at his disposal too. Of these, the most powerful is the requirement that the nation’s electoral districts be redrawn prior to the next House of Representatives or House of Councillors election. When Ozawa was affiliated with the DPJ, Noda always had to try to cow the Ozawa group by threatening to dissolve the Diet and call an election that would lead most of Ozawa’s followers to lose their seats. Now, with the need to threaten the Ozawa group eliminated, Noda and the rest of the DPJ can sit on electoral reform, if necessary, until the end of the present Diet terms in July and August of 2013.

Electoral reform is the ultimate bargaining chip because whatever is agreed upon will go a long way to determining who will rule Japan for the next decade.

Chances are that Noda, who is known for his ability to throw his coils around his opponents and patiently hug them to death, will extort the passage of a great many bills from the LDP and the New Komeito before rewarding them with the reforms they desire. Chances are also that, as was the fate of Ozawa, the LDP and New Komeito leaders will fail to appreciate the withering away of their powers in the interim, until it is far too late.

Michael Cucek is a Research Associate at the MIT Centre for International Studies and the author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.

5 responses to “Ozawa’s departure, the revival of the DPJ and the future of Japan”

  1. Michael, I agree that the long-overdue rupture between Ozawa and the DPJ is a good thing given his destructive potential in situations where he cannot control the levers of power. There was clearly no future for the DPJ with him in it and they are well rid of him. Even in a position where he could not lead given his money politics travails, he did not want anyone else to, and so the DPJ habitually became a two-headed monster. However, given the dead end in the DPJ that he found himself in, he has chosen the least worst option by getting out. This may yet prove to be another dead end, but it gives him the best chance of reviving his political fortunes in the short term and also better prospects for his followers in the next general election than they would have had in the DPJ. So leaving the DPJ has put Ozawa on political life support for the time being. He has quickly found political allies in the smaller parties – New Party Kizuna, New Party Daichi – True Democrats, Tax Cuts Japan, which has one ex-DPJ’er in the Lower House, plus the Social Democratic Party, which is finding common cause with the Ozawa-ites on the tax and nuclear issues. So, all is not lost for the Ozawa cause. This may just be prolonging the inevitable, but Ozawa will remain your ‘political demon’ for a while longer, I fear. In the meantime, Gov. Ishihara’s comments about Ozawa are a constant source of amusement given that he doesn’t pull his punches.

    On a related point: I don’t think you can attribute the popularity of the new metropolitan parties just to the Ozawa effect on the DPJ. There was no Ozawa in the LDP and yet the disaffection is directed as much to them. Moreover, the political and electoral threat of these metropolitan parties, such as it is, will remain even with Ozawa’s departure from the DPJ. This threat be exaggerated: none of these new parties has yet successfully converted itself to a major national force – that’s where the big challenge is for them. Hashimoto is like a political meteorite – flashing across the sky only to burn out when he plunges to earth (i.e. gets elected to the Diet). Hashimoto and his entourage (schooled in Hashism in the juku) are just like Ozawa and his entourage – a bunch of amateurs clinging to his coattails. Where have all the professional politicians gone? If the Noda DPJ and the LDP had any sense, they would redesign the Lower House electoral system along the lines of the original Ozawa plan in 1993: 100% single-member districts as well as completely ridding the system of its rural bias.
    Best wishes, Aurelia

    • To: Dr. Mulgan

      If you followed the link on the Your Party (no ill reflection on you if you did not — one cannot click on every source) you will find this gem of a quote:

      “In an interview I had with Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe for the September issue of the Bungei Shunju monthly magazine, he offered an interesting view on why his party gained so many seats in the Upper House election in July. He said it was because his party was not pro-Ozawa nor anti-Ozawa, but ‘Ozawa-free.'”

      Watanabe in 2010 knew what his party represented: an Ozawa-free alternative to giving one’s vote back to the LDP.

      The Ishin no kai in 2012 is little different: it is the “Ozawa-free” anti-LDP vote, with a dash of regional hubris and a splash of telegenic pizzazz in the person of Osaka City mayor Hashimoto Toru.

      Noda cannot redesign the electoral system without the support of the LDP in the House of Councillors. The LDP is inextricably tied to the New Komeito (25per cent of the LDP’s district votes in 2009 came from Komeito voters). A 300 single-seat district system would wipe out the New Komeito. Ergo, no such system will be proposed.

      Niggling of me, but meteorites are meteors that survive the plunge through the atmosphere to strike the earth. Hashimoto would be pleased to be a meteorite.



      • Thanks Michael; I did in fact check out the ‘Your Party’ reference, but thought that it was still an insufficient explanation for voter support for Your Party, which, in my view, is the only party truly representing the neo-liberal standpoint in Japanese politics. This party defines itself by much more than its standpoint on Ozawa. It is the neo-liberal voice in Japan, which as we know, neither the LDP nor DPJ are, although there are neo-libs in both of them. Moreover, it’s difficult to agree with Watanabe’s viewpoint that he is ‘Ozawa-free’ in the sense of belonging in neither the pro- or anti-Ozawa camps when in fact he has made a number of public criticisms of Ozawa and could therefore be said to be in the anti-Ozawa camp.

        What Watanabe actually said before the June 2010 Upper House election was:

        ‘I will not form a coalition with Ozawa. Our goal is to win as many seats as possible in this Upper House election and become a viable third party that can seize the initiative in negotiations to form a government after the next Lower House election. That’s why we won’t join the DPJ as long as it has Ozawa’s stamp on it’. [Footnote: Richard Katz, ‘Yukio, we hardly knew ya’, The Oriental Economist Report, June 2010, p. 1.]

        It was before the September 2010 DPJ leadership election that he made his ‘Ozawa-free’ comment. He referred to
        the dual power structure caused by Ozawa’s dominance over the DPJ administration that was preventing leadership by politicians and prolonging the dependence of the policymaking process on bureaucratic input. He said: ‘The dual power structure prevented Japanese politicians from exercising leadership and encouraged bureaucrat-led policymaking’.[Footnote: ‘“Minna no Tō wa Ozawa san iranai”, Kenshūkai de Watanabe daihyō’ [‘At a training seminar, party leader Watanabe says, “Your Party does not need Mr Ozawa”’], Asahi Shinbun, 3 September 2010, p. 4.] It was for this reason that Watanabe rejected the possibility of supporting Ozawa in a possible coalition to overcome the divided Diet situation, which Ozawa was hinting at should he win the leadership election, with even the possibility of handing over the prime ministership in exchange for a coalition deal. This would be a repeat of the 1993 Hosokowa-led coalition, leaving Ozawa in charge behind the scenes. Watanabe said, ‘Your Party does not need Mr Ozawa…So we should not give him a hand….Your Party is an “Ozawa-free party”, which means we do not need Mr. Ozawa’.[Footnote: ‘“Minna no Tō wa Ozawa san iranai”].

        What Watanabe was doing was working his antipathy for Ozawa into one of the major policy planks of his party, namely, reducing the power and size of the bureaucracy. The following March (in 2011), Watanabe let loose some more bile about Ozawa. He predicted a division of the political world into three groups: one led by Prime Minister Kan, which would follow the MOF line, have close relations with the bureaucracy and would favour a tax increase, joining the TPP and close relations with the United States; another led by the Ozawa group, diametrically opposed to each of these policy lines in advocating tax cuts, opposing the TPP and closer ties with China; and a third, which would be led by his own party, calling for tax cuts and joining the TPP. [Footnote: Sato, ‘Big bang’, Watanabe again categorically ruled out the possibility of his party ever forming any sort of coalition with Ozawa.

        Regarding the numbers in the Ozawa new party, plus allies: the magic number for moving a no-confidence motion in the Lower House (51) is not necessarily out of reach. Although it appeared that the party’s LH contingent immediately slipped from 40 to 38 and then 37, the three who backed out may cooperate with the Ozawa party on moving a vote of no-confidence, as might Kamei Shizuka and those (13) in New Party Kizuna, New Party Daichi-True Democrats and Tax Cuts Japan. In fact Ozawa + other minor party allies + Kamei would do it (14). Of course, Ozawa won’t move on this until he and his party are ready to fight an election – and he and they are already in campaign mode. In the meantime, the expanded group will probably form a united Lower House parliamentary caucus. Even the two who chickened out at the last minute and stayed in the DPJ (Shina Takeshi and Tsuji Megumu), and Zukuran Chobin from Okinawa who became an Independent, might join this parliamentary caucus, as may others from the DPJ. There are others in the DPJ who are considering cooperating with Ozawa and even remaining in it, such as Hatoyama. Hatoyama is still smarting from the ‘excessive’ punishment of a six-month suspension of his party membership – – he, one of the very originals in the DPJ being ‘punished’ by up-starts such as Noda and Koshiishi. No wonder he is taking umbrage. Ozawa may search for a way to link up with this kind of member who will remain in the DPJ but cooperate with him. Just because Ozawa and many in his faction left the DPJ does not mean that the remaining DPJ will be a united group. Moreover, it will only take 17 more people to leave the DPJ (or to leave its parliamentary caucus) for it to become a minority party in the Lower House. The SDP might also come on board in terms of cooperating with the Ozawa party on policies where they share common ground. Of course, Watanabe from ‘Your Party’ had to make the point that ‘the number of people who left the party doesn’t seem like enough and it looks like the don’t have enough power’ (NHK News 7, 2 July 2012). Watanabe does not seem willing to concede that a) Ozawa’s new party is a lot bigger than his in terms of its presence in the Diet; b) Ozawa’s new group is the third biggest in the Lower House, bigger than even the Komeito.

        I concede your point of astronomical detail – clearly not my strong suit.

        Best wishes,

  2. Michael,

    Electoral reform is no bargaining chip … what if there is no cross-party agreement by mid-2013 – does that mean Noda gets to remain PM indefinitely?

    LDP/Komei will help Noda pass the comsumption tax hike + essential budget bills that are still pending. After that there will be total shutdow. With Ozawa and Kizuna party summoning 47 seats, all it takes is 4 unaffiliated Dietmen/defectors to call a no-confidence vote. After the essential bit of support to VAT and budget bills is done, LDP/Komei will support a no-confidence vote anytime the bare voting minimum is available to call and pass the vote.

    Noda is hanging on by his fingertips and those finfgertips will give way this fall. DPJ will be soundly beaten in the ensuing election. LDP will capture much of the ‘establishment’ vote, and Noda will go down in history as the man who split his party and sent his country’s economy south by legislating a huge tax increase in an environment of deflation and dismal global growth prospects.

    Best, Sourabh

    • To Mr. Gupta:

      The new Ozawa party’s reuniting with all of the former members of the DPJ scattered about in the micro-parties still only adds up to 49 Representatives, two short of the 51 necessary to submit a no-confidence motion to the Diet.

      Ozawa is electoral poison. Except in the DPJ splinter parties like Kizuna, any party leader who grasps Ozawa’s hand will face the a immediate rebellion of his own party members and the likely breakup of his or her party. Recall that when Kizuna requested being included in the caucus of opposition parties, which runs the gamut from the far right Sunrise Party to the Communists, the caucus refused Kizuna entry.

      Article 81 of the Constitution states that the Supreme Court has the final say on what the law is (someone in the drafting committee knew about the Marbury vs. Madison decision). Article 47 of the constitution states that matters regarding electoral districts must be fixed in law. The Supreme Court has declared the electoral districts of both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors unconstitutional. Ipso facto, no elections can be held until the current Diet fixes the district maps of both Houses. Yes, Article 45 fixes the term in office of a Representative at four years and Article 6 fixes the term of a Senator at 6 years. Japan thus faces the prospect of being sucked into constitutional black holes in July and August of 2013, when the terms of the present House of Representatives and half of the House of Councillors run out.

      Noda is not hanging on by his fingertips; LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu is. Both Noda and Tanigaki face party elections in September. Noda’s place at the head of the party is secure. Tanigaki, however, is roundly despised in the LDP for failing to capitalize on the many stumbles, real or perceived, of the DPJ. He will face running against former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru, Kennedy School of Government graduate Hayashi Yoshimasa and LDP secretary-general Ishihara Nobuteru (son of Ishihara Shintaro). Other candidates may also emerge.

      I will guarantee you that Tanigaki will not survive a challenge by any of the above individuals.

      So what are the chances that the LDP leadership hopefuls and the Tanigaki haters in the party will allow him any victories in the months leading up the LDP presidential election?

      Let me answer that: zero.



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