Ozawa Ichiro, Japan’s Gingrich?

Alex Pappas at Japundit calls attention to this recent Asahi article on DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro.

When the political history of Japan during the two decades following the breakdown of the 1955 system is written — although in The Logic of Japanese Politics, Gerald Curtis has already provided a fantastic account of change (or the lack thereof) in Japanese politics during the 1990s — Ozawa will loom large. As LDP secretary general during the early 1990s, Ozawa fought a tough losing battle, arguing for Japanese participation in the international coalition to liberate Kuwait. He subsequently headed an LDP study group on foreign policy that called for a more significant Japanese role internationally.

In 1993, however, he bolted the party, created his New Frontier Party and assembled the coalition that became the first non-LDP government since the LDP’s creation in 1955. Always more comfortable working behind the scenes, Ozawa’s activities to isolate the Socialists in the coalition undermined the integrity of and ultimately destroyed the seven-party coalition government. His subsequent activities as head of the Liberal Party were equally opportunistic, as he joined a coalition government with the LDP — and then, at least according to one person I’ve spoken with, drove the late Obuchi Keizo to his death by constantly threatening to leave the government.

The most recent twist to the Ozawa saga was, of course, his being elected president of the Democratic Party of Japan in the spring of 2006.

Ultimately, I think Ozawa may be remembered as a Newt Gingrich-like figure, his personal presence undermining his ideas for political reform. Ozawa must be given credit for having seriously thought about how to reform Japan, particularly Japanese foreign policy: the ideas discussed in his Blueprint for a New Japan, written in 1993 before Ozawa left the LDP, remain relevant even today. But his outsized ego and presence have undermined every party with which he has been affiliated, and ultimately undermined his efforts to advance the ideas he claims to hold dear.

As for the Asahi article, it discusses Ozawa’s efforts to travel the country and bolster the DPJ presence across the country — often by cooperating with the Rengo, Japan’s Trade Union Confederation. The article notes criticism of Ozawa’s neglecting Diet debates for his travels, but I would not be so quick to criticism him on this count. Focusing on building a local foundation for the DPJ may be a better electoral strategy, given that elections — even to the Diet — often depend on more parochial concerns, together with the candidate’s personal background and relationships with voters; it is the kind of strategy that may not pay immediate dividends, but if pursued consistently could result in major gains over the medium to long term.

For the time being, I think a Diet-centered electoral strategy would fail, given that the DPJ remains trapped between its desire to obstruct the government’s legislative agenda and its own reformist ideas, which often overlap with ideas pushed by the LDP. While the transition from Koizumi to Abe has lessened the tension somewhat, given Abe’s apparent lack of commitment to structural reform, the problem remains. So why shouldn’t Ozawa focus on developing a local presence, given that the size of the LDP’s majority in the Lower House limits the opposition’s ability to obstruct the government’s agenda, and engaging in debate reveals the similarities between LDP and DPJ policy positions as well as the differences?

I am more concerned about the cooperation with Rengo, because compromises made to secure the support of labor unions could blunt the DPJ’s reformist edge and make it even more like a mere imitator of the LDP: some reformers, but too many ties with interest groups that have a lot to lose from reform, dulling the party’s progressive edge.

Ozawa has long desired a Japanese political system led by two major parties — but a system in which the two major parties simply mirror each other is not a step forward (cf. France, Germany, Britain, etc. etc.) Hopefully this will not be Ozawa’s final legacy.

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