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Japan Against Itself

His main problem, then, is that people think he is greedy. His split from the LDP is seen, not as a matter of principle, but as the result of a power struggle with the party elders, who stood in the way of Ozawa’s ambitions. Of course it is true that the same social mechanisms that breed conformity in most people encourage megalomania in those who actively seek power. Japan is full of little Caesars. But I think that in Ozawa’s case there is more to it than simple ambition. Or, put differently, his ambition has a serious purpose.

Ozawa himself was destined to become one of the elders. And yet he says he never felt part of the establishment. He felt like an outsider on the inside. His father, Ozawa Saeki, was a distinguished LDP politician, a largely self-made man who drank and womanized in the way Japanese political grandees often do. But, according to his son, he never took money from business circles. If so, this would have made him a highly unusual LDP man. Ozawa could hardly make the same claim for himself. But in one respect, he says, he is like his father: “In our hearts we always were outside the establishment.”6

Ozawa studied law in Tokyo and wanted to be a lawyer. But after his father’s death in 1968, he was pressed by his father’s supporters to step into Saeki’s shoes. So he entered the faction of Tanaka Kakuei, whose mastery at arranging pork barrel payments to his supporters was without precedent or parallel. Tanaka’s secretary was sent around Ozawa’s constituency, together with Ozawa’s mother, to bow deeply to various local worthies and ask them, in the name of Tanaka, to support the young man. Tanaka is said to have loved Ozawa like a son. And Ozawa, in the Japanese phrase, “would have held on to burning chopsticks” for his boss. Tanaka was the ultimate outsider among insiders. Lacking in formal education and Old Boy connections, he literally bought his way into the establishment. He was a genius at making money talk. So Ozawa, as his bagman, got a first-class education in LDP “money politics.” Until his first cabinet post in 1983 as home affairs minister he also was chairman of most key party committees. So all he really needed to do was wait his turn to collect the increasingly specious spoils of the highest political office.

Why, then, did he argue for reforms that would shake up the very system from which he, if he had bided his time, would have benefited? In 1980 he proposed a new electoral system with single-seat districts to foster a two-party system. This was meant to replace the warm bath of consensus politics, with LDP factions taking turns in power by keeping business happy. Multiple-seat electoral districts, in Ozawa’s view, encouraged money politics, because candidates from the same party would be offering sweet deals instead of different policies. Ozawa should know, since he was involved in such deals.

The reason for Ozawa’s reformism characteristically had to do with political authority, or, rather, the lack of it. Two years ago, he explained his motives to Tanaka’s private secretary, Hayasaka Shigezo:

Boss Tanaka was a great fixer. But, you know, an LDP prime minister will always be dragged down by factional rivals. You just cannot do what you want. And inside the party, bureaucrats have their hands on our throats and will manipulate everything to their advantage.7

The main idea, then as now, was that politicians would have more authority if the voters had a choice between distinct parties with distinct policies. And that could only happen if the one-party system, based on factional struggles, graft, and collusion between politicians and bureaucrats, was replaced by a system in which two equally powerful parties vied for power.

The reason Ozawa finally left the LDP was the refusal of the party elders to consider these ideas. He continued to press for them as leader of the Japan Renewal Party. He also argued for tougher laws to restrict corporate donations to factions and independent candidates. An electoral reform bill was finally passed in February. But neither the diehards in the LDP, who depend on fat corporate checks, nor the left wing of the Socialists, who were afraid that a two-party system would leave them nothing to bargain with, were ready to emerge from their respective warm baths. So to keep his coalition together, and also get enough LDP votes to pass the bill, Prime Minister Hosokawa had to compromise. The new system will be a complicated mixture of single-member constituencies and proportional representation. And corporate donations will still be allowed. But the new system might still squeeze out radical candidates, and produce two or three mainstream parties, which would suit Ozawa’s aims.


The relative weakness of Japanese politicians, as opposed to unelected officials, goes back much further than 1955, when the LDP was formed, or 1945, when many wartime politicians were purged. Ozawa thinks there have been no great political leaders in Japan since the Meiji period, when his hero Okubo held sway. Since then, he told me, Japanese politicians turned inward, to purely domestic concerns. They were no longer called upon to steer Japan’s course in the world. One might counter this statement by saying, with Gore Vidal, that great leaders make great wars. At least Japan never had dictators comparable to Mussolini or Hitler.

It was of course hard for a Japanese dictator to emerge when absolute authority formally rested in the divine hands of the emperor. This might seem sensible: Who wants dictators? But the imperial system, set up in the Meiji period, was, as Carol Gluck of Columbia University has pointed out, a deliberate device to devalue politics, to deprive elected officials from political authority, to project the notion that politics would disturb the social order. In Gluck’s words: “The ideological denial of politics…remained a negative one, while the positive efforts at citizen-making concentrated on the sense of nation.”8

Despite the American efforts to teach democracy to the Japanese, the denial of politics persisted after 1945. Not because of Japan’s congenital samurai ethics, or other ancient values, but because the postwar arrangement, anchored in the American-drafted constitution, meant that Japan’s security was once again largely beyond the control of elected politicians. Japan’s military hands and feet belonged to the US. Because a disproportionate number of politicians were purged by the Occupation government, the country’s administration was left in the hands of bureaucrats who, by and large, escaped blame for the war. The ministries did what they knew how to do best: they administered an economic system aimed at building up national power through the expansion of Japanese industry.

So foreign policy became almost entirely mercantile, a matter of improving Japan’s position in foreign markets. No matter how nasty they were, governments of countries that provided raw materials to Japan and potential markets for Japanese goods had to be appeased. And all this suited Washington well, since a strong Japan was needed as a dependable fort in the cold war. As long as the cold war lasted, Washington would appease Japanese mercantilism. And, in any case, neither Yoshida nor Eisenhower could have possibly predicted at the time that Japan’s industry would become quite so formidable. But now that the cold war is apparently drawing to a close, Washington is less accommodating, and Japanese mercantilism, which was so much part of the Yoshida deal, has become the source of a serious conflict.

The Yoshida deal did not pass without resistance in Japan. In fact, Ozawa has revived a debate that raged in the early 1950s between Yoshida and the so-called revisionists, notably Hatoyama Ichiro, prime minister between 1954 and 1956, and Kishi Nobusuke, prime minister until 1960. Like Ozawa, they argued for a single-member-district system that would produce two large parties—preferably, of course, two large conservative parties. As Kataoka Tetsuya, a wellknown scholar of that period, observed, this was “no mere moralizing about democracy but a matter of hard-headed calculation.”9 The revisionists like Ozawa wanted to reduce the influence of the bureaucrats. Changes of government, they hoped, would keep the ministries politically neutral.

But the revisionists also wanted to rewrite the constitution so as to restore Japan’s sovereign right to maintain its own armed forces. Their motives were not entirely pure. Some revisionists, such as Kishi and Hatoyama, were nationalists, and their war records were blemished, to say the least. But there was a good political reason why they might have been right nonetheless. For a new Japanese constitution would have given Japanese politicians more authority over foreign policy, which would have prevented the collusive triangle of big business, bureaucrats, and the LDP from strangling Japanese politics. In short, a revised constitution might have been good for democracy.

However, Yoshida’s view that commerce and industry should come first prevailed. Constitutional revision was no longer seriously discussed, except in right-wing nationalist circles. Since it was no longer a respectable political issue, it became a cultural one, about the national soul, the divine emperor, the role of Shintoism, Japan as the repository of ancient Asian values, and so on. The revisionist argument acquired a repellent air of resentful chauvinism. Which is why most Japanese politicians and intellectuals prefer not to deal with the matter.

Ozawa does deal with it in his book, but gingerly, as though picking up a red-hot pair of chopsticks. The part of his book called “Becoming a ‘Normal Nation”’ is the most controversial, and the most flawed—or perhaps disingenuous—part of his argument. But his discussion about Japanese security and the postwar constitution is at least rational and political, without any of the romantic flimflam of the nationalist right. Nor is there, in his book, a hint of aggressive or peevish nationalism.

Stung by Japan’s paralysis during the Gulf War, when all the Japanese government could do to help the allies was to pay a large check, Ozawa wants Japan to be a “normal” nation, with its own defense policy. Like the revisionists of the 1950s, Ozawa wants to change the Yoshida deal. But he does not propose to go as far as they did. Instead of rewriting the constitution, he wants to stick to the US-Japan Security Treaty (which obliges the US to defend Japan, not vice versa), and add a clause to the constitution, allowing Japan to send Self-Defense troops abroad as part of a UN reserve force. This would mean that “Japanese participation does not involve the use of force overseas based on decisions by the Japanese government and under government commands. This strict distinction between action as a sovereign nation and action under UN command is important.”

It is indeed important. And this would seem a pragmatic solution: Japanese troops could then take part in international peace-keeping operations, without violating the letter of the constitution. But it is not the political solution that the revisionists—and Ozawa—sought. For the Japanese government still won’t gain any significant authority over its armed forces, nor will it achieve diplomatic equality with the US. It is absurd to compare the US-Japan Security Treaty with NATO, as Ozawa does, if only one side can commit itself to defend the other. I put this to Ozawa, and he agreed that I was right, logically, but that the US surely didn’t expect Japan to come to its defense, and Japan, in any case, lacked the means to do so. True enough, but this answer just confirmed the lopsidedness of the US-Japanese relationship. It is this lopsidedness, this sense of dependence that lends an emotional tone in Japan to the trade conflict with the US: American criticism of Japanese mercantilism, however much many Japanese agree with its substance, is still widely seen as bullying by a big brother.

But even Ozawa’s rather mild proposal to send Japanese troops on combat missions under UN command has run into fierce resistance in Japan. As in Germany, the phrase “normal nation” is regarded among the liberal left as a code for nationalist revival. I heard several people in Tokyo hint at Ozawa’s “hidden agenda.” He not only had fascist tendencies, but was a dangerous nationalist in disguise. Ozawa’s main rival in the current coalition government is the chief cabinet secretary, Takemura Masayoshi. He has written a book in response to Ozawa’s best seller, entitled Japan, a Small but Shining Country (Chisakutomo Kirari to Hikaru Kuni Nihon). Takemura is highly critical of Ozawa’s idea of a normal country. He argues that there “is no reason to think that Japan should play a military role commensurate to its economic strength.” Instead, he believes, Japan should concentrate on “positive, non-military efforts,” such as reforestation and other “green” projects.

Ito Hideko, the Socialist congress-woman, agrees. “I’m absolutely opposed to Ozawa’s view,” she told me. “Japan is a victim of the atom bomb and a former aggressor. We have become a pacifist nation through a historical process, and we must remain so.” This opinion is not just held by leftists. There are members of the Liberal Democratic Party who think so too. If, during future elections, some of the larger parties, such as the Socialists and the LDP, split, the constitution could well be one of the main issues. This would certainly bring more clarity to Japanese politics. An open debate on the constitutional question would have another positive effect; it would set apart the right-wing nationalists, whose romantic notions about imperial divinity and the tribal state would look increasingly irrelevant.

It is entirely possible that Ozawa’s personal ambitions will be thwarted, that he will be shot down, metaphorically speaking, by a modern-day samurai, just as Okubo Toshimichi was in 1878. Corruption scandals from his past as an LDP fixer might still trip him up. Given the factiousness that still pervades Japanese politics, rivals will be eager to use them against him. This is one reason why he prefers to be a kingmaker rather than a king. Ozawa has powerful enemies in the bureaucracy, too. But even so, his ideas have already contributed to a new atmosphere in Japan. You notice it on television, where politicians are beginning to debate such issues as free trade, or the role of the Self-Defense Forces. You see it in newspaper editorials, where the most powerful ministries, including the Ministry of Finance, are openly criticized for stifling free enterprise by interfering too much in the automobile industry or in allocating funds for public works. Under the old regime it would have been inconceivable for a politician to fire a top bureaucrat in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as happened late last year. (The fact that the politician was a high official of the LDP party and the MITI minister a member of Ozawa’s party, clearly played a part.)

Bill Clinton said he welcomed Japanese efforts to curb the power of the bureaucracy. The US embassy in Tokyo has been talking not just to Ozawa but also to Japanese trade union officials in order to solve problems over trade. This was seen as a deliberate ploy to weaken the influence of the Ministry of Finance. Before he resigned, Prime Minister Hosokawa called President Clinton a “partner” in his struggle to change the “old system.” Washington’s current policy of confronting Japan and demanding that the Japanese buy a specified amount of American goods and services has been hailed by some commentators in Japan as helpful to the kind of reforms that Hosokawa and Ozawa were seeking.

Ozawa has a somewhat different view. He thinks that Japan should take the initiative in opening its markets to foreign competition. If deregulation takes place during an open dispute, he says the US gets “the impression that Japan makes concessions only if enormous pressure is applied. Japan is also frustrated at the thought that increased gaiatsu (“external pressure”) will result in only more concessions. This has spurred an emotional confrontation which threatens to aggravate US-Japan trade friction.” One might well ask, what American trade negotiators are supposed to do if Japan refuses to take the initiative.

Nonetheless, the current American policy to force Japanese companies to buy set percentages of US products such as automobile parts is unlikely to shift power from bureaucrats to politicians. On the contrary, when Hosokawa was prime minister, he and his ministers were made to appear inept, even untrustworthy. First Hosokawa tried to look tough and said no to Washington, claiming that such import targets fostered not free trade but “managed trade.” He was right, of course. But then, to avoid a trade war with the US, he turned to his bureaucrats to find ways to comply with American demands.

And what was Ozawa himself up to while Japanese mandarins were twisting the arms of Japanese business to buy American goods? The man who wanted to break away from the Yoshida deal, the powerful leader behind the Hosokawa coalition, the advocate of Japanese equality with the US—how did he want to prove that he was the man of the moment? In the best tradition of Frank Capra movies, he planned to go to Washington to sort out the trade problem himself. The Japanese Foreign Ministry claimed not to know anything about this. The trip was canceled. But it looked very much as if Ozawa was seeking to confirm the impression that there was only one mover in Japanese politics, apart from the Ministry of Finance and the US, and that was Ozawa Ichiro.

April 14, 1994

  1. 6

    Quoted by Hayasaka Shigezo in Bungei Shunju, October 1993.

  2. 7

    Hayasaka in Bungei Shunju, October 1993.

  3. 8

    Carol Gluck, Japan’s Modern Myths (Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 72.

  4. 9

    Kataoka Tetsuya, The Price of a Constitution (Taylor and Francis, 1991), p. 150.

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