from Asia Unbound

The DPJ Confronts the Ozawa Factor

February 18, 2010

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Japan’s new ruling party seems about to go down in flames. Prime Minister Hatoyama looks badly shaken after the first few weeks of the legislative season. The policy agenda of Japan’s new DPJ government has been drowned out by chants of “corruption” and "tax evasion" being hurled from backbenchers—even from the PM’s brother—over funds provided by their mother.     

So much for Japan’s new politics.    

Even Washington policymakers seem unable to resist the fray. The invitation to the DPJ’s Secretary General, Ichiro Ozawa, to visit here—with the requisite six planes and 100+ new Diet members—has now turned into a public bidding war over how much time he will get with the president. What was intended to be a great opportunity to introduce the newest members of the DPJ to the U.S. government and policy community seems to have been turned into fodder for defending Mr. Ozawa’s honor at home. 

Opinion polling in Japan reveals a pretty sharp public turn away from Mr. Ozawa, with most respondents arguing that he has not given a full account of the money received from construction interests. Too much cash seems to have been funneled through too many bank accounts before it was used to purchase land. Yet, a particularly interesting poll in the Asahi Shimbun revealed that the bulk of local DPJ party bosses remain convinced that they need him if the party is to win at the ballot box.    

Some doubts remain about the ambitions of Japan’s prosecutors. The sight of those infamous blue-suited investigators descending on Mr. Ozawa’s office seemed indictment enough given their past track record, yet they seem in this case to have been high-handed and sloppy. Even after a very public drama, including the arrests of three secretaries and the capitulation of Japan’s “shadow shogun” to prosecutor’s demands that he subject himself to questioning, they concluded they had insufficient evidence to indict Mr. Ozawa himself.    

In fact, Japan’s prosecutors may now be subject to an inquest that will review their decision.    A citizen’s group has petitioned for just such a review, and if a panel of inquest is formed, then the allegations against Ozawa will be revisited. So it isn’t over yet—and the possibility of overturning the decision not to indict will hang over this summer’s Upper House election cycle. The current Diet session ends in June, and while it may have seemed too difficult politically to pursue Mr. Ozawa into the halls of the legislature (the Diet must approve the arrest of a fellow member during session), Japan’s prosecutors and those citizens who now review their practices could feel greater latitude to revisit the case over the summer.

Beyond the fate of Mr. Ozawa, however, there is a growing distaste in Japan for the DPJ—at least for its current leadership. With an approval rating threatening to fall lower than 40 percent, the question now is whether or not Mr. Hatoyama will last. Rumors abound that there are deep divisions within the party as the prospects for electoral victory in the Upper House are dimming.   

Meanwhile, it is tax season in Japan, and many cash-strapped Japanese are wondering why they must pay taxes when their incredibly wealthy prime minister seemingly does not.