The Making of a Prime Minister: Boss Ozawa Does a Deal

By Greenfeld, Karl Taro | The Nation, June 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Making of a Prime Minister: Boss Ozawa Does a Deal


Greenfeld, Karl Taro, The Nation


The Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading newspaper, publishes the Prime Minister's daily schedule in a small column at the bottom of page two. On April 23, fifteen days after Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa announced his resignation due to financial improprieties and two days before the election of his successor, the published schedule consisted of just one item: "Morning: Reading a Book at the Hotel Okura." The outgoing Prime Minister pointedly wasn't bothering to feign official duties. So out of the loop was Hosokawa that top bureaucrats attached to his office had instructed him to refrain from dining at exclusive French restaurants or pricey ryoteis (traditional Japanese-style restaurants) on the government tab.

Who was running the government during the convoluted struggle to succeed Hosokawa? The same man who put Hosokawa into office and effectively ran the government for much of his term: Ichiro Ozawa, the acknowledged kingmaker of Japanese politics. In the seventeen days between Hosokawa's resignation and Tsutomu Hata's election, Ozawa, whose nominal title is deputy chairman of Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party), displayed political knife-wielding and shrewd deal-making that would have had a Chicago alderman scribbling notes.

"The thing you have to understand about Ozawa," explained a former associate of the political boss, "is that he is a purely political animal. He'll wear the same suit for four days. He doesn't have to eat. He can go days without sleeping. There's no one who can keep up with him. Once in a while one of his assistants will have him change his tie just to keep up appearances."

Ozawa's world is Japanese politics, to the exclusion of almost everything else. (Appearing on a recent television show, he didn't recognize Kuniko Yamada, Japan's top comedian; this would be the equivalent of Bill Clinton not knowing who Eddie Murphy is.) Ozawa's father was a local politician in Iwate Prefecture. Ozawa himself was, at 27, the youngest person ever elected to the Diet, Japan's Parliament. He has thrived in the smoke-filled rooms ever since. He was a protege of Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary shogun who dominated Japanese politics for much of the seventies and early eighties. Then, in 1985, as Tanaka's power ebbed and his fundraising ability deteriorated, Ozawa defected with Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Shin Kanemaru to form a new faction, which would dominate Kasumigaseki, Japan's Capitol Hill until last year. It was during those years of the Kanemaru era that Ozawa first emerged as a political force. From Tanaka and Kanemaru he learned the two big lessons of Japanese politics:(1) Loyalty is a value to be cultivated in others, not in oneself, and (2) whoever has the most money wins.

And so last year, after the nightly news shows broadcast reports that 5 billion yen ($50 million) and several hundred pounds of gold bullion had been found in Kanemaru's office and the Liberal Democratic Party strongman fled Tokyo in a limousine pursued by news helicopters and television vans, Ozawa did what any shrewd politician would do: He distanced himself from the scandal. Disappearing into a hospital for a few days with a mysterious augment, he re-emerged with a new-found passion for reform. He quit the L.D.P., taking thirty-five Diet members with him, and formed a new political party, the Shinseito, ostensibly in opposition to the L.D.P. His sudden interest in reform was a heavy-handed but effective appeal to an electorate sickened by the obvious greed and corruption of Shin Kanemaru and "money politics: Ozawa's defection also appealed to opposition politicians because the votes he controlled could make or break a new prime minister. If Ozawa had stayed with the Liberal Democratic Party, the corrupt machine that had led Japan for thirty-eight years could have held on to the office. Ozawa's defection made possible Japan's first non-L.D.P. government since the 1950s.

Ozawa's first choice as Prime Minister a year ago would have been his longtime henchman Tsutomu Hata, the man who eventually took office this year. …

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