What Really Comes First for Ozawa Ichirō?


At 12:30 p.m. on July 2, House of Representatives member Yamaoka Kenji walked into the offices of the Democratic Party of Japan with a packet of letters from 50 politicians announcing their resignation from the ruling party over the government's decision to raise the consumption tax.

That evening, the leader of the mutiny, former party president Ozawa Ichirō, held a press conference to confirm his own resignation from the DPJ and reiterated his criticism of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, arguing that “there are other things we need to do before we start raising taxes.” Ozawa then held forth on the importance of policies that “put people’s lives first”—the central pledge of the manifesto adopted by the DPJ for the 2009 general election through which it seized power from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Later that week, Ozawa and his followers in the lower and upper house announced that they were forming a new party. And, lest anyone mistake their motives, they have it out plainly in the party’s odd name: People’s Life First.


Politicians outside of Ozawa’s own coterie have openly scoffed at the idea that Ozawa is driven by a commitment to improving people’s lives. On June 29, DPJ Policy Research Committee Chair Maehara Seiji had a few choice words for Ozawa’s antitax posturing and imminent defection. “He must take the Japanese people for fools if he thinks all he needs to win an election is to declare himself opposed to taxes and nuclear power,” commented the former foreign minister.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Genba Kōichirō, meanwhile, questioned Ozawa’s sincerity point blank. “When we drew up the manifesto, we believed that replacing all the earmarked subsidies [to local governments] with block grants would yield huge savings for the central government, but by now it's obvious that’s not going to happen.(*1) To say you can do something when you know you can’t is just plain dishonest.” Former Prime Minister Asō Tarō of the LDP acidly suggested that a more appropriate name for Ozawa’s new party would be “Put Elections First.”

In my view, these criticisms are fully justified.

With the exception of a few loyal henchmen, Ozawa’s splinter group consists almost entirely of first-term Diet members who were swept into office by the DPJ’s historic victory in 2009. Lacking strong political bases, they have watched in dismay as their hopes for reelection dwindled along with the DPJ government’s approval rating. Ozawa has worked on their fears with continual references to the “looming general election” (to be held no later than August 2013). Apparently these politically vulnerable junior Diet members are laboring under the illusion that Ozawa, the legendary fundraiser and campaign strategist, will work his “magic” for them and ensure their reelection. But whatever magic Ozawa may once have had is gone. And in my opinion, there was precious little to begin with.

Ozawa learned election strategy from such masters of the game as former Prime Ministers Tanaka Kakuei and Takeshita Noboru, this much is true. And he passed that knowledge—a relatively rare commodity within the DPJ—down to the party’s younger politicians. But the DPJ did not win the August 2009 general election because of its secretary general’s election magic. It won because the public was fed up with the status quo under the long-ruling LDP. As late as February 2009, the DPJ’s approval rating among voters was only 23.1%, as compared with 33.7% for the LDP, according to the results of a joint Yomiuri Shimbun–Waseda University poll. By June 2009, however, a full 73% of respondents were saying that they had lost all confidence in the LDP.(*2)

No Man of the People

Cynicism about Ozawa and his latest venture is not limited to his political opponents. Two recent public opinion polls by the Sankei Shimbun (conducted June 30–July 1) and the Mainichi Shimbun (June 27–8) showed public support for a new Ozawa-led party at 11% and 24%, respectively. The decision by vulnerable first-term Diet members to join Ozawa in abandoning ship seems irrational indeed in light of these numbers. Surely the odds against their reelection are higher now that they have bolted the DPJ to join a new party.

Even on Ozawa’s home turf in Iwate Prefecture, there are signs of anger over the power broker’s maneuvering, particularly given his relatively infrequent visits to disaster areas in Iwate and neighboring prefectures in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. A 70-year-old woman living in temporary housing in the city of Rikuzentakata spoke bitterly to a reporter recently. “Mr. Ozawa has never had a moment's thought for people in the disaster area. When it comes down to it, he's just concerned with his own affairs. He has nothing to do with us” (Sankei Shimbun, July 3, 2012). By contrast, Noda administration officials at all levels—notably Minister of the Environment Hosono Gōshi—have made countless trips to disaster-stricken communities, as well as the site of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Small wonder Ozawa has an image problem. Is this the behavior of someone who puts people’s lives first?

The truth is that Ozawa Ichirō has long since lost touch with the lives of real people. Perhaps it is foolish to expect otherwise of a Nagatachō veteran of 40 years.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Noda has worked tirelessly and selflessly, making tough decisions and braving relentless criticism in his determination to stave off a fiscal crisis like Greece’s and maintain a decent standard of living. In the final analysis, which politician really has the interests of the people at heart? Let us hope the voters have the wisdom to judge correctly.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 6, 2012.)

(*1) ^ The DPJ manifesto, drawn up for the 2009 general election, pledged to “abolish all tied [earmarked] state subsidies to local governments and replace these with ‘lump-sum grants’ whose use can, in principle, be freely determined by local governments.” It argued that this change would “improve fiscal efficiency and obviate the subsidy application process, thereby reducing personnel expenses and other expenses related to subsidy application,” and that it would “enable low-cost, high-quality government services by allowing standards adapted to local conditions and not imposing national standards excessively.” The manifesto estimated that these and related administrative reforms could trim ¥6.1 trillion from the ¥55.1 trillion then budgeted for local subsidies, public corporations, and so forth.—Ed.

(*2) ^ See Tanaka Aiji et al., 2009-nen, naze seiken kōtai datta no ka (What Caused the Change of Government in 2009?) (Tokyo: Keisō Shobō, 2009).

DPJ Ozawa Ichiro