On Sunday, he faced the largest challenge of his political career, when as the leader of the People’s Life Party (生活の党, Seikatsu no Tō), he struggled to hold onto his own constituency in northern Iwate prefecture, campaigning in his home city of Ōshū for the first time in three decades.
As it turns out, Ozawa (pictured above) held off his opponent by more than 10 points, winning one of just two seats for the People’s Life Party. So while Ozawa will return to the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the Diet (国会), he will do so as an increasingly isolated relic after reaching the pinnacle of leadership in both the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) of prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), which held power for three tumultuous years from 2009 to 2012.
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Known for decades as Japan’s ‘shadow shogun’ for the power he wielded behind closed doors, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ozawa is one of the leading figures of postwar Japanese politics. He was a vital figure in the LDP’s 1980s dominance, and he was instrumental in leading the only two movements that have dislodged the LDP’s six-decade political hegemony. In 45 years of political life, Ozawa himself has gone from conservative to liberal and back again with no clear ideological compass beyond gaining (and regaining) power. Although he’s a controversial figure, there’s no doubting that he has played a greater role than nearly anyone else in Japan in the effort to create a truly multi-party system, even while he’s disparaged Christianity as an exclusionary religion, claimed to ‘hate’ Europe and once derided Americans as ‘mono cellular’ and ‘simple-minded.’
At age 72, and leading a caucus that contains just one other legislator, few would disregard Ozawa’s ability to mount yet another comeback, especially if Abe’s efforts to stimulate Japan’s economy, once again tumbling into recession, ultimately fail. That’s especially true with few credible opposition figures in sight.
Rising through the LDP’s leadership structure in the 1970s and 1980s, he led the LDP’s efforts in the 1983 election and he served as home minister from 1985 to 1986, ultimately reaching the post of LDP secretary-general from 1989 to 1991 as one of the party’s leading lights among the generation that came of age after the devastation of World War II in the post-imperial Japan, leapfrogging many elder officials within the LDP.
In 1993, as Ozawa became increasingly disenchanted with the rising leadership of Ryutaro Hashimoto (橋本 龍太郎), he formed a new party, the Japan Renewal Party, which joined seven other parties, including the now-defunct Japanese Socialist Party. The alliance won the July 1993 elections, forcing the LDP out of power for the first time in over four decades, pitting Ozawa and his new force at the center of the movement to democratize Japan’s politics. The effort, however, ultimately failed when the Socialists left the coalition 10 months later, forming a new government with the LDP.
Undaunted, Ozawa eventually merged the Renewal Party into the New Frontier Party and in the 1996 general election, fought against Hashimoto in a head-on battle for prime minister. Ozawa fell short, however, and Hashimoto would go on to become prime minister until 1998. Ozawa, in the meanwhile, floundered in the opposition forces, founding the Liberal Party in 1998 until merging it with the DPJ in 2002, which would remain Ozawa’s home for the next decade.
Despite growing murmurs of scandal, Ozawa led the Democratic Party three times, including in 2008, when he seemed poised to become prime minister. In May 2009, however, he was forced to step down, once again, due to corruption charges related to fraudulent campaign finance reporting. Working behind the scenes, where Ozawa always seemed to wield his greatest strength, he was instrumental in the Democratic Party’s August 2009 election victory, pushing the LDP out of power for the second time since 1955 and elevating Yukio Hatoyama (鳩由紀夫) to the premiership. For the third time and for yet another political party, Ozawa seemed to govern Japan once again from the shadows, this time as the DPJ secretary-general.
When Hatoyama, unpopular and unloved, stepped down after just a year, he cited, in part, the revelations that continued to surround Ozawa, as well as continued economic turbulence and his failure to close an American marine base in Okinawa, reversing himself on one of the party’s most high-profile campaign pledges. Ozawa resigned his position as well, and he never fully recovered his influence within the DPJ or within Japan, as he spent the rest of the DPJ government fending off government prosecutions, though he was ultimately acquitted of wrongdoing in April 2012.
But that didn’t mean he left the stage quietly. He loudly protested the efforts of his intraparty rival, prime minister Yoshihiko Noda (野田 佳彦), by then the third DPJ premier in as many years, in Noda’s efforts to raise the Japanese consumption tax. Though Noda successfully enacted the tax increase before his government withered, and Abe even allowed the tax increase (from 5% to 8%) take place in April, critics blame it for depressing the green shoots of Abenomics-fueled GDP growth. Abe called this week’s snap election ostensibly to win a mandate for delaying the next stage of the tax increase from 8% to 10%.
Back in 2012, however, Ozawa’s decision to form the People’s Life Party, bringing 49 renegade DPJ legislators with him, likely sealed the party’s doom in the December 2012 elections that Abe so easily won.
In the wake of Abe’s reelection in 2014, Ozawa struck a defiant note, reminding the entire country that the winds of political fortune could yet bring him back to the center of power a fourth time, even as Japan’s one-party rule now seems firmer than ever:
Diet heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, leader of Seikatsu no To (People’s Life Party), admitted Monday that the opposition camp failed to give voters an alternative to the ruling bloc in the Lower House election but stressed that change is still possible if they join hands. “The public was not given alternative choices” to the Liberal Democratic Party, and the opposition forces were not fully prepared, allowing the LDP to score a landslide in Sunday’s election, the leader of the minor opposition party said at a news conference in Tokyo.
“I’m sure a change of government can happen anytime once an alternative force emerges in front of the public,” Ozawa said. “It’s entirely dependent on whether the opposition is united enough to create” a counterbalancing force.