Ozawa Ichiro indicated, in a tearful press conference Tuesday evening, that he will stay on as DPJ president despite the indictment of his chief public secretary — but Ozawa's statement may have only been the end of the beginning of the final act of Ozawa's long career.
The press conference itself was a masterpiece of defiance. Ozawa did not give an inch, insisting on the outrageousness of the actions of the public prosecutor's office and the lack of wrongdoing his part or the part of his secretary. He appealed to the public for support and understanding, and insisted that now as ever his purpose is to build Japanese democracy. (The press conference can be read in its entirety here, here, here, and here.)
But it is unlikely that the press conference will be the end of Ozawa's troubles.
First, by staying on Ozawa will remain a target for the media. As Jun Okumura notes in his reading of editorials on Ozawa, the press has for the most part called for Ozawa's resignation, and will likely to continue to press for it by reporting every snippet of news that might back Ozawa into a corner. To paraphrase another politician who had his troubles with the media, it looks that the Japanese press will have Ozawa to kick around for at least a little while longer — and it will not hesitate to get its kicks in.
The press will also report on every note of criticism of Ozawa from within the DPJ, of which there appears to be plenty. Apparently DPJ members were holding back their criticism in the hope that he would bow out freely, without their having to do anything to force him out. But as before Ozawa's press conference, the press is being disingenous in its reporting on criticism of Ozawa. The critics mentioned in press reports on "cracks in the DPJ" appear to be none other than the usual critics of Ozawa, the youngish, reformist members clustered around Maehara Seiji, Edano Yukio, and Noda Yoshihiko. Mainichi, for example, quotes Sengoku Yoshito as calling for Ozawa to "independently make the political decision [to resign]." Sengoku Yoshito is one of Ozawa's most outspoken critics within the DPJ and had made some noise about challenging Ozawa in last year's party leadership election before backing down like Ozawa's other critics. Maehara Seiji, Ozawa's predecessor and perhaps his most frequent sparring partner within the DPJ, has also questioned the wisdom of Ozawa's decision and wondered why Ozawa received so much from one company. Sankei's discussion of criticism of Ozawa comes entirely from the Maehara-Edano-Noda axis, featuring quotes from Sengoku, Komiyama Yoko, education minister in the DPJ's shadow cabinet, and Edano, who said that Ozawa's explanation was inadequate. Sankei actually mentioned Komiyama's remarks in a separate article, which notes that this was her first public criticism of Ozawa without mentioning her connection to what is effectively the most anti-Ozawa portion of the DPJ.
It is for that reason that the image of a DPJ falling to pieces must be taken with a lump of salt.
The DPJ has a mainstream-anti-mainstream dynamic not unlike that which has characterized the LDP for much of its history. By ignoring this background, press coverage of the DPJ's divisions conveys a misleading impression of Ozawa's having been completely abandoned when in reality criticism from these members is entirely in keeping with their role as the opposition within the opposition. There are critics outside of this section of the party, but for the moment it appears that most of the criticism comes from the party's anti-mainstream. And given their history, it is worth asking whether their criticism is any great concern. In its battles with Ozawa, the Maehara-Edano-Noda axis has repeatedly failed to follow up its criticism with action. After spending most of last summer painting a portrait of Ozawa as DPJ dictator, not a single member of the anti-mainstream decided to run against Ozawa in the September election. When Ozawa stepped down after facing criticism for his discussions with Fukuda Yasuo regarding a grand coalition, not a single member of the anti-mainstream stepped forward as a possible successor. For all of Maehara's participation in LDP-centered study groups, there are few signs that he is actually willing to defect along with other anti-mainstream DPJ members.
In short, the press coverage of the criticism may be worse than the criticism itself. These critics are simply doing what the anti-mainstream is supposed to do, and I read their remarks as being more about election positioning than a serious effort to drive Ozawa to resignation. As I wrote when the first polls after the scandal were published, the indictment merely reinforces the trend towards urban, reformist DPJ candidates running against Ozawa and the party in order to win their seats. But in order to do that, they have to act like anti-mainstream candidates. I don't take their fretting about whether they will win their districts all that seriously: they are still facing LDP candidates who are weighed down by Aso, Fukuda, Abe, 50 million missing pensions records, and a disintegrating economy. Reformist candidates for both parties will be running against their party's leadership — and for all the suspicion surrounding Ozawa, DPJ candidates should still have an easier time distancing themselves from him than their LDP rivals.
I am not ruling out the possibility that the DPJ leadership is making a grave mistake in backing Ozawa, but I do not think that the political situation as been wholly transformed or that an LDP victory is assured by Ozawa's staying on as party leader. The LDP does have more reason to hope; the LDP has officially questioned why Ozawa is staying on, but I think this Mainichi article is right that the LDP would actually prefer Ozawa as the face of the DPJ than any other leader. But Aso has critics of his own within the party, and his future as the head of the LDP is no more secure than Ozawa's future as DPJ leader. And the public is far more concerned with what Aso is doing as prime minister than what Ozawa did or did not do a few years ago in service of his political ambitions.
Other posts by Tobias Harris: