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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008


Ozawa bets on a takeover

Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has long been known as a gambler, both at the casino and in the political arena. When he was his 40s, he often went to London to study British parliamentary politics, which he regarded as a model of political reform. While there, he would take young bureaucrats at the Japanese Embassy to casinos.

As one bureaucrat recalls, Ozawa's way of placing bets at the roulette table was unusual. He would keep betting on the same number until he won. In his first try, he would bet one chip on a number. He would up the ante to five chips, then to 50 chips and even to 200 chips.

Ozawa has confided to close associates that he is not fond of getting involved in political bargaining. Nevertheless, he has no choice but to get involved directly in political bargaining as he is one of today's principal political figures. He is not good at winning political friends with sweet words. Instead, he pushes opponents against the wall with principles and logic and forces them to make hard decisions. He can win big, or lose big.

Win or lose in politics, he gets the same excitement as he does at the roulette table. The excitement of politicking and that of gambling are apparently so intermingled in his mind that political bargaining, which he once said he detested, has become his favorite game.

The manner in which Ozawa gambles politically bears a striking resemblance to the way he bets at the casino, says one ex-bureaucrat. For example: • While he was secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, he proposed to the then Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev that Tokyo pay Moscow $20 billion for the return of four islands off Hokkaido, which have been under Russian occupation since the closing days of the Pacific War. • He offered to make huge contributions to the United States in connection with "structural reform" negotiations. • He was instrumental in Tokyo's decision to contribute $13.5 billion to Washington to help the U.S. fight the Persian Gulf War in 1991. • He proposed raising the consumption tax rate to 7 percent to finance pensions and welfare during the Hosokawa administration.

Any of these ideas could only have come from a big gambler, the bureaucrat has commented. For the past two decades, many politicians and journalists have praised Ozawa for making "bold decisions." Indeed, he played the principal role in creating the government of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993, which ended, for a time, the 38-year reign of the Liberal Democratic Party.

As Ozawa now aims to repeat the feat of toppling the LDP regime, he must be feeling the old excitement of betting big at a roulette table.

Every time Ozawa makes a major political move, realignment of political parties occurs in one form or another. It is often said that Japan entered a new era of political coalitions after the Cold War ended, and that this was triggered by the withdrawal of Ozawa and his followers from the LDP. He was at center stage for the dissolution of the New Progressive Party, the formation of a coalition between Liberal Democrats and his own Liberal Party, the dissolution of that coalition and the merger of the Liberal Party and Democratic Party, and the abortive attempt a year ago to create a "grand coalition" of the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan.

These seemingly haphazard moves on Ozawa's part are rooted in his pattern of betting on the same number and raising the ante. The number he is betting on in politics is the LDP itself. He is raising the ante because his ultimate goal is to defeat and take over a political party that is bigger than what he controls now.

What scenario would likely follow general elections, expected to be called within weeks rather than months? If Ozawa's DPJ becomes the largest single group in the Lower House but fails to win a majority — with the LDP-Komeito coalition hanging on to more than half the seats — Ozawa is likely to defy the predictions of most experts and move boldly to take over the LDP, rather than try to form a new coalition with Komeito.

If that happened, the LDP would split right down the middle between those who detest him and those who admire him. This would mean the dissolution of the LDP, leading to a reorganization of all political parties. That, indeed, is the very goal on which Ozawa has staked his political life for many years.

Having announced his resignation, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda no longer has the prerogative or the power to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet, dissolve the Lower House or call general elections. These must be done by whoever succeeds Fukuda as the LDP head and subsequent prime minister.

Ozawa is collaborating with the People's New Party to "review" postal service privatization undertaken by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and seeks the cooperation of the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party to "review" the introduction of a lay judge system next May.

Thus Ozawa is bent on doing anything to take the helm of government even if it means scrapping the postal service privatization overwhelmingly approved by voters in the last general elections, or taking up a judiciary issue. This is Ozawa at his gambling best.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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