Mr Ozawa’s Poisoned Chalice

By Tobias Harris

On the night of the Upper House elections, Ichiro Ozawa, president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and architect of his party’s election strategy, was nowhere to be found. As the results came in, Naoto Kan, DPJ acting president, and Yukio Hatoyama, DPJ secretary-general, spoke to the press about their party’s victory and excused the absence of the third member of the party’s ruling troika. Perhaps Mr Ozawa was absent due to shock at the scale of his party’s victory.

By any measure, the 2007 Upper House election will be remembered as a historic defeat for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), marking the first time since the party’s creation in 1955 that it wasn’t the largest party in the House of Councillors. The LDP lost everywhere. In the densely populated prefectures surrounding Tokyo, the DPJ took two of three seats in Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama. In rural Japan, traditionally the LDP’s strongehold—its unshakeable foundation—DPJ or DPJ-backed candidates won major upsets over LDP heavyweights, including Toranosuke Katayama, the LDP’s Upper House secretary-general. DPJ candidates won in each of rural Shikoku’s four prefectures.

The victory was a personal triumph for Mr Ozawa, who since being elected as DPJ president in April 2006, emphasized campaigning among the people in rural Japan over confronting the ruling coalition in the Diet. For this he was criticized from within the DPJ and in the media, not least by the Asahi Shimbun, which criticized Mr Ozawa in an editorial in May for failing to confront the government directly in the Diet.

Mr Ozawa, of course, cannot claim sole credit for his party’s victory, which was probably more of an LDP defeat than a DPJ victory. He does deserve credit, however, for positioning his party to take advantage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s failings—and as a result Mr Ozawa once again stands astride the Japanese political system at a critical moment in its development.

And yet, as the Diet returns to business following the chaotic, unscheduled recess following the resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his replacement by Yasuo Fukuda, Mr Ozawa’s victory may prove to be a poisoned chalice for both him and his party.


It has much to do with the state of the LDP in the wake of Mr Abe’s decline and fall. In the weeks following the House of Councillors election, the DPJ seemed to go from strength to strength. Mr Abe was reeling, more vulnerable to blows from within his own party—such as persistent calls for his resignation from respected party members, including two current members of the Fukuda cabinet, Shigeru Ishiba and Yoichi Masuzoe—than to the ascendant DPJ’s calls for Mr Abe’s resignation and a snap election. In Mr Abe, the DPJ had the perfect rival for the moment: politically tone deaf and increasingly isolated within his government, to the point that by the end of his government, Kaoru Yosano, the chief cabinet secretary in the second Abe cabinet, was forced to fend off media questions about a coup d’etat executed by Mr Yosano and Taro Aso, the former LDP secretary-general and candidate to replace Mr Abe.

At the same time that the government and the LDP faltered, Mr Ozawa’s DPJ was increasingly united, perhaps more by the prospect of a long-desired ‘regime change’ than by a sudden outbreak of comity within the long fractious DPJ. Mr Ozawa, together with Messrs Kan and Hatoyama, had agreed to make a major issue of opposing an extension of the Anti-terrorism Special Measures Law—which has enabled a refueling operation by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and was set to expire in November. It appeared the public was with them, right up until Mr Abe resigned after promising to stake his job on passing the extension.

With the transition from Mr Abe to Mr Fukuda, however, the momentum has shifted. Under Mr Abe, the LDP-led government became brittle, unable to react to changes in the domestic and international situations. On foreign policy, Mr Abe’s obsession with the fate of abducted Japanese citizens meant that the Japanese government has been isolated in the six-party talks since February, when the US and North Korea reached an agreement that traded energy support for progress on denuclearization. More importantly, domestically, the Abe cabinet was flat-footed in its response to reports that the government had misplaced more than 50 million pension records—the scandal that was, according to Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis, Mr Abe’s ‘Hurricane Katrina’ moment, in which the Abe cabinet showed itself to be both incompetent and insensitive to the concerns of Japanese citizens.

The Abe cabinet was flat-footed in its response to reports that the government had misplaced more than 50 million pension records.

Beyond these problems, however, Mr Abe’s tumultuous tenure exacerbated serious divisions within the LDP that existed prior to Mr Abe and were a major reason for the LDP’s defeat at the polls in July. Namely, in the aftermath of Mr Koizumi’s rule, the LDP remains a party in limbo. Mr Koizumi struggled to bring the LDP into the 21st century: his emphasis on reform made the party more appealing in economically vibrant urban Japan, contributing to the LDP’s landslide victory in 2005. At the same time, pushing ahead with reforms risked leaving rural Japan behind the booming cities, with its children fleeing to urban centers and its shops shuttered.

Misplaced Pension RecordsMisplaced Pension Records - Illustration by Mike Sparrow ( -- Click on image for enlarged view.

The Fukuda government is not likely to suffer the same problems. In particular, Mr Fukuda, a pragmatist who has made a point of bringing together not just leaders from all the LDP’s factions into his government, but also incorporating prominent and popular independents, is unlikely to fall victim to the rigidity that doomed Mr Abe. In his first days as prime minister, he signaled that he is aware of the problems facing party and country, and recognizes, like Mr Koizumi before him, that political reform is an integral part of structural reform. For Japan’s leaders to change how Japan is governed, they must have the trust of the Japanese people. Accordingly, Mr Fukuda suggested in his maiden speech to the Diet that his priorities—reforming the economy while providing for those left behind by reform—are mindful of the people’s insecurities, and that he is willing to work with the DPJ to formulate policy.

The first opinion polls on the Fukuda cabinet suggest that the public is willing to give the new PM, and with him the LDP, another chance, with most newspapers recording favorable ratings in the high fifties, some 30 points higher than Mr Abe’s support at the end of his tenure.

And so the DPJ’s—and Mr Ozawa’s— problem: the aggressive and confrontational approach that might have worked with Mr Abe is ill-suited for facing the disarming and (momentarily) more popular Mr Fukuda. The latter’s government will be nimbler and more nuanced than Mr Abe’s, less dismissive of those who disagree with it and more willing to borrow good ideas from anywhere it finds them, including and especially the DPJ. It will be less likely to be tricked into calling an early election in which the LDP is nearly certain to lose the supermajority it won in 2005, and with it the ability to override the DPJ-controlled Upper House’s ‘veto.’ It is for this reason that it is premature to dismiss Mr Fukuda’s government as a caretaker government— and foolish for the DPJ to persist with a strategy that prioritizes confrontation over cooperation.

Catch 22 for the DPJ

The July victory may ultimately prove disastrous for Mr Ozawa and the DPJ because taking control of the House of Councillors has presented the DPJ with a catch-22. Like all opposition parties, the DPJ is motivated by a desire to distinguish itself from the party in power. In Japan, as in other democracies, this often amounts to raising the temperature of the rhetoric to disguise the underlying fact that the policy differences between the LDP and the DPJ are not all that great, especially since Mr Koizumi pointed the way for the LDP to become an urban, reformist party. Now that the DPJ is responsible for one house of the Diet, however, rhetorical warfare may not be enough to give the DPJ an edge in advance of the next general election. The public actually expects the DPJ to govern, and govern responsibly. But by controlling the weaker Upper House, the DPJ cannot actually govern without the help of the LDP, meaning that the DPJ might actually be weaker following the July election: it won control of the Upper House, giving it partial responsibility for policy outcomes, but in the process lost the ability to lambaste the government and the LDP for their failings in power. Accordingly, Mr Ozawa’s strategy of pushing aggressively for a snap election makes sense in light of this difficult situation, but barring a momentary lapse of reason by the government, the current situation will prevail at least until September 2009, if not longer, depending on the outcome of the next House of Representatives election.

Like all opposition parties, the DPJ is motivated by a desire to distinguish itself from the party in power

The DPJ has little choice but to take Mr Fukuda at his word and cooperate with the government. Faced with a more nimble, pragmatic government, the DPJ too must become nimble and pragmatic. Agreeing to cooperate with the LDP, especially on the urgent matter of restoring Japan’s public finances, need not be an automatic defeat for the DPJ. Indeed, the DPJ can use its position in the Upper House to both hold the LDP accountable for mistakes, and, help make better national policy. Mr Koizumi recently likened the DPJ and Mr Ozawa to the LDP’s ‘anti-mainstream’ factions that have, over the course of the party’s history, stood in opposition to the party leadership, often causing the party executive to moderate its policies for the sake of placating the anti-mainstream. While Messrs Ozawa, Kan, and Hatoyama might bristle at their party’s being likened to a mere faction of the LDP, the analogy might be useful for describing the position the DPJ should take over the next two years. As the largest party in the Upper House, the DPJ can shape the policy process from within and ensure that its policy priorities are given sufficient attention by the government. At election time, it can challenge the government for its failings, while showing voters its record of competent management of the Upper House—and, of course, question the reformist credentials of an LDP that has supposedly reverted to its bad, old ways.

Mr Ozawa, leader of the DPJ, makes a speech to the DietMr Ozawa, leader of the DPJ, makes a speech to the Diet. -- Photo courtesy of the Democratic Party of Japan.

This scenario is far from ideal, and it will make it all the more difficult for the DPJ to distinguish itself from the LDP —at least on policy grounds—but then the contemporary political situation in Japan is far from ideal. Divided government is a new experience for Japan, and it may take some time for the parties to work out the new rules of the game to ensure that at least some important pieces of legislation are passed over the next two years. But they must do so; given that the Japanese people have already lost faith in the political class as a whole, it is clear that the DPJ will not benefit from obstructionism, and the LDP will not benefit from inactivity or using its Lower House supermajority tyrannically.

Will Mr Ozawa, who since 1993 has struggled to break the LDP’s hold on power, prove capable of matching Mr Fukuda’s nimbleness and consenting to a modus vivendi that prioritizes cooperation over confrontation? Or will Mr Ozawa find that having led the DPJ to within sight of the Promised Land, he is forced to step aside in favor of a new leader more capable of engaging in the ‘coopetition’ demanded by the new balance of power within the political system and thus succeed in unseating the LDP as the ruling party at the next election? Much will depend on the remainder of this autumn’s special Diet session. If Mr Fukuda manages to retain public support and outmanoeuvre the DPJ to pass a new bill authorizing the MSDF mission in the Indian Ocean, Mr Ozawa may face increasing pressure from within his own party to either change course and begin cooperating with the government, or else step aside. Both parties tread a fine line, but the DPJ, hungry to replace the LDP as the governing party, has to be even more careful, having to master the challenge of showing itself to be a capable governing party, while distinguishing itself from the LDP and preventing divisions within its own ranks from undermining its power.JI

Tobias Harris received an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge and has worked as an aide to a DPJ member of the Upper House of the Diet. He is currently a freelance writer and the author of Observing Japan (, a Japanese politics blog.

J@pan Inc Magazine, Nov/Dec 2007