Winning election as president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) may have seemed like cause for jubilation. But after landing the job two weeks ago, Ichiro Ozawa, 63, now faces a historic challenge: For the DPJ to become a relevant political force, he must reinvent the party he helped to create. If Ozawa succeeds, it will have a crucial impact on the future of democracy in Japan. But is he up to the job?
When Ozawa’s Liberal Party joined forces with the DPJ in 2003, many believed that Japan’s opposition had finally gained the critical mass it needed to challenge the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has had a chokehold on power for nearly half a century. Commentators boldly predicted that true two-party politics had finally arrived in Japan. They were wrong. The DPJ has not yet proven to be a political equal of the LDP. It has consistently missed opportunities, failed to define a coherent message, staked its reputation on trivial issues and repeatedly imploded amid avoidable public embarrassments. Seiji Maehara, 43, whom Ozawa now succeeds, was the most recent casualty. He committed political seppuku when a scandalous e-mail introduced by a DPJ member purporting to prove an LDP member’s corruption turned out to be fake.
Once an LDP member himself, Ozawa’s 37 years in national politics demonstrate that he is a survivor. He has reigned for years as one of the country’s most prominent political outsiders. In 1993, he engineered the formation of the only non-LDP government in Japan’s postwar history (though it crumbled in less than a year). In 1993, he wrote Blueprint for a New Japan, a book espousing the “normal nation” theory—now very much in vogue—asserting that Japan needs to develop the political, military and diplomatic power commensurate with its economic might in order to become a global leader.