Ichiro Ozawa
Ichiro Ozawa; drawing by David Levine


Writing about the current state of Japanese politics is a bit like grabbing interviews with soldiers in the midst of battle. Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro resigned on April 8 after admitting that he had used a loan of almost one million dollars from a trucking company with gangster connections for political purposes. The situation is so fluid that we do not know which of the present political parties will survive the next general election, to be held some time later this year. Nor is it absolutely certain as I write who the next prime minister will be, though it is likely to be the foreign minister, Hata Tsutomu. There will be splits, new alliances, new parties, and some old parties might disappear altogether. The divisions in today’s coalition government run so deep that the different parties in government can really agree on one thing only: that the ancien régime, monopolized by a congeries of conservative factions called the Liberal Democratic Party, had to go.

It is to Hosokawa’s credit that his demise has not prompted any nostalgia for the former government. The next prime minister will not be chosen by factions of one party, but by several parties with distinct politics. This new pluralism, however fragile and contentious, was unthinkable before Hosokawa came to power.

LDP factions were not so much based on political differences, which were marginal at best, as on the political power of the faction bosses. The role of a faction boss was to rake in enough corporate money, in exchange for favors, to ensure that his faction’s members could spend lavishly enough to get re-elected and eventually rise to the top jobs in the party and Parliament. In other words, to be a successful LDP politician you had to be corrupt. You also had to be good at forming alliances with other faction bosses in the backrooms of Tokyo’s best geisha houses. To be a good LDP boss, in short, was like being a good Mafia don. And as a rule the most successful faction bosses would become prime minister.

The reformation of Japanese politics began with a rebellion inside the LDP, which had governed the country since 1955. This rebellion, in the summer of 1993, was led by a number of youngish politicians (fifty being considered almost pubescent in the LDP), led by Hata Tsutomu and Ozawa Ichiro. Both had been cabinet ministers. Like almost all successful LDP politicians, including the former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, who left the LDP to form his own party in 1992, they are tainted by the kind of corruption that LDP politicians have usually engaged in to advance their careers. Ozawa is accused of accepting a great deal of money from a construction firm. Hosokawa received his loan from the Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin transport company when he ran for provincial governor in 1982. He was also accused of profiting from questionable stock market purchases made by his father-in-law. Under the old regime he would probably have continued to get away with these dealings—unless a rival had chosen to use them against him. But in the present climate of more robust prosecution of political graft, he could not carry on as the prime minister of a government that is supposed to clean up corruption. Accusations concerning Hosokawa’s finances surfaced several months ago, and the LDP, the very party that institutionalized graft, pounced on him and did not let go until he resigned.

The revenge was sweet, for corruption was also what helped to put the LDP in opposition. In August last year, the young rebels of the LDP carried a no-confidence motion against the prime minister, Miyazawa Kiichi, an elderly ex-bureaucrat of the old school who will be remembered by television viewers the world over for receiving George Bush’s lunch in his lap. The no-confidence motion, a move the rebels made when they saw the party was in a state of crisis, was prompted by Miyazawa’s failure to do something about…corruption.

Miyazawa’s government was hit last spring by a widely publicized scandal, which, unusually in Japan, refused to disappear from the news. Kanemaru Shin, leader of the largest LDP faction, which included both Hata and Ozawa, was arrested for taking huge bribes—an alleged $50 million in exchange for favors to the same transport company that gave Hosokawa such a generous loan. A tough former investigator, Yoshinaga Yusuke, had been appointed as public prosecutor, and he pursued the case with unusual vigor. The public mood was turning against the sclerotic and corrupt LDP. And the electoral system, heavily weighted toward the rural districts, was looking more and more anachronistic in an increasingly urban country.

Ozawa had hoped to take over Kanemaru’s faction, then crush the other factions and change the electoral system. As secretary-general of the party, he had already tried to curb factionalism by redirecting election funds from the different factions into the party coffers. But after Kanemaru’s arrest in 1993, Ozawa and Hata left what now looked like a rapidly sinking old boat, and started the Japan Renewal Party.


Hosokawa had founded the Japan New Party the year before. Like Hata and Ozawa, he advocated a change in the political system and, like them, he wished to attract the votes of urban consumers. He was in favor of more regional independence from the central government in Tokyo, more open markets in Japan for foreign products, and fewer government regulations—in 1992, 10,942 types of permits and licenses were required to do business in Japan.1 The Japan Renewal Party wanted these things too, as did a third party, started by LDP defectors, the Harbinger Party. This party, led by Takemura Masayoshi, sticks to a pacifist line, as far as defense policy is concerned, whereas the Japan Renewal Party is more hawkishly inclined, and the Japan New Party has not quite made up its mind. But all three parties were in favor of breaking the monopoly of the LDP.

The lower house elections were held in September, a month after the founding of the two new parties. The lower house, the House of Representatives, with 511 seats, is more important than the upper House of Councillors, and the new parties won more than 100 seats. The Japan Socialist Party lost heavily, to end up with 70 seats, and the LDP, which lost 52 seats, was left with 223. This enabled the Socialists, the new parties, and the Komeito, or Clean Government Party (51 seats), to form a coalition government and appoint a new prime minister. For the first time since 1955, the LDP no longer ruled. Faction politics no longer dominated the newspapers, because LDP factions, at least for now, had ceased to matter. A new era appeared to have begun.

If politics were a matter only of rhetoric and style, the change would have been almost revolutionary. Hosokawa Morihiro, the scion of an old noble family—he was governor of Kumamoto Prefecture, which his family had ruled for centuries, and his grandfather, Prince Konoye Fumimaro, was prime minister when Japan signed the Axis pact in 1940—was a most untypical Japanese prime minister. He cuts a dashing figure, with his lordly and at the same time informal manners, his fine suits, Italian ties, and frequent-tennis trimness. As the youthful face of a new government, he could not have been better, it seemed. He conducted press conferences in the American way, standing up to answer questions directly, without resorting to the formulaic but nevertheless almost incomprehensible utterances of his predecessors. In his first policy address after becoming prime minister he apologized in plain language for past Japanese actions in Asia, “including aggression and colonial rule.” No LDP prime minister would have been so unequivocal.

In matters of more substance, however, Hosokawa had a hard time. His electoral reform bill, though compromised, will benefit urban voters, and this is a major achievement. But his plan to raise the consumption tax was defeated. And the political differences in his own ranks, between left-wing socialists and laissez-faire liberals, between pacifists and hawks, between electoral reformers and anti-reformers, were such that it was a miracle that the government held together as long as it did. Even if the next prime minister is Hata, he will have as much difficulty reconciling the political rifts as Hosokawa did.

These problems help to explain why one of the main aims of the reformists, to shift political power from bureaucrats to politicians, is still far from being accomplished. Indeed, a combination of inexperience, internal division, economic recession, and constant pressure (not least from US trade negotiators) made this government even more dependent on the guidance of bureaucrats than the LDP had been. And in its present state of headlessness, it will be more so still. According to one newspaper report, a government committee met earlier this year to work out changes in the tax laws. But there was little to discuss, for the politicians concerned were handed neatly typed documents by a finance bureaucrat, and these were promptly read out to the press as the latest government policy. As one of the politicians at the meeting put it: “The convenience of these government agencies works like a drug.”2


Last year, an LDP politician was quoted as saying—a bit sourly no doubt—that only three things moved Japanese politics: The US, the Ministry of Finance, and Ozawa Ichiro. This might suggest that nothing has changed. And in some ways, nothing much has. Japan still depends on the US for its defense, and on economic issues Washington has long been the largest unelected opposition party in Japanese politics. US trade negotiators have claimed for many years that their efforts to open the Japanese markets will benefit Japanese consumers (a self-serving claim, but true). The Ministry of Finance still has more influence on Japanese government policies than any other institution, including the government itself. And Ozawa Ichiro was the main strategist behind Hosokawa’s government, and will probably continue to be so in the next government, particularly with Hata Tsutomu, his closest ally, as prime minister. (If Watanabe Michio, a contender who might split from the LDP, came to power, this too would not diminish Ozawa’s influence.) It is not for nothing that the US ambassador in Tokyo, Walter Mondale, has been talking to Ozawa, who is not even in the cabinet, to help resolve the conflicts with the US over trade.


So if Hosokawa had an interesting style, Ozawa is more interesting in substance. To say nothing has changed in Japanese politics is to forget that Ozawa is no longer an LDP politician struggling against elderly faction bosses. He just might pull off some of the reforms he has been advocating for years. Hosokawa’s policies were based on Ozawa’s ideas. His chief aim is to create a two-party system, so that Japan cannot be dominated by one party again. He has already succeeded, with the help of others, like Hata, in destroying the monopoly of the LDP. This feat alone has made Ozawa one of the most influential Japanese politicians since Yoshida Shigeru, the prime minister between 1946 and 1954, who effectively set the course for postwar Japanese politics, or rather, non-politics. The goal of Ozawa, and his fellow reformers, is to break away from the so-called Yoshida deal.

It was Yoshida who turned the pacifist constitution, imposed by General MacArthur’s occupation government to Japan’s advantage: Washington would take care of Japanese security, while Japan, administered by able bureaucrats, and permanently governed by different factions of one conservative party, would concentrate on industrial expansion. This is what is known as the “1955 system,” after the year when the two conservative parties, the Liberals and the Democrats, merged to keep the Socialists (and Communists) out of power. Postwar Japanese politics, in Ozawa’s words, had been “reduced to the task of apportioning the dividends of ‘Japan, Inc.”‘

The results are well known: big business expanded, politicians became the well-paid middle-men between business and government agencies, and bureaucratic mandarins ran the show—to the point of often answering questions in Parliament—instead of the politicians. Japan was a parliamentary democracy on paper, but it hardly worked like one in fact. The ruling party was virtually impossible to remove, and the opposition, pushed to the margins of politics, became radicalized. The radical wing of the largest opposition party, the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), had become so extreme—supporting North Korea, for example—as to make the party unelectable. The Socialists were reduced to huffing and puffing, and to looking after the interests of disenchanted minorities: the most radical labor unions, Koreans in Japan, outcast communities, and so on. Lacking an opposition that could actually take power, the political system atrophied.

But the fiction of parliamentary procedures had to be upheld. So after the JSP had stated its opposition, with a great deal of righteous indignation, to any new government legislation, bureaucrats would sit down with LDP and opposition politicians to work out a deal. In exchange for favors to Socialist constituencies (and to individual Socialist politicians too), the Socialist opposition would agree to stop opposing. The mandarins would then prepare the questions and answers for the next session in Parliament, and all would be well. On the rare occasions when all was not well, proceedings could quickly take a nasty turn—including fistfights on the floor of Parliament—which was all the more reason to work everything out beforehand. Thus the Yoshida deal turned liberal democracy into a polite ritual of so-called consensus politics, with bureaucrats dictating the terms. And many a book and article was written to show that this was the traditional Japanese way (because of traditional rice culture, or village life, or samurai values, or whatnot).

Ozawa’s book, first published at the time of his split from the LDP, is a direct challenge to the Yoshida deal, and thus to all those who think that the permanent one-party state, driven by economic nationalism and run by authoritarian administrators, is the traditional, natural, and hence unchangeable Japanese way. Blueprint For a New Japan3 is a huge best seller in Japan (more than 600,000 copies sold). This in itself is a sign of change, for other political books recently written by (or in the name of) politicians have done almost as well. So, incidentally, do uncensored photography books of full-frontal nudes (“hair nude” is the phrase). The two phenomena may not be entirely unrelated: political debate and easier sexual mores often go together in Japan—and perhaps everywhere else too. The last great flowering of Japanese democratic debate was in the 1920s, a period characterized by Ero, Guro, Nansensu, or erotic, grotesque, nonsense.

None of these political books is of much literary interest. The best one can say for the prose in Ozawa’s book is that it is workmanlike, in the Japanese original as well as in translation. Various people have had their hand in it. And the few truly entertaining passages—notably a borrowed idea that Japan can solve the world’s ecological problems because of ancient Oriental values inherited from prehistoric man—have been deleted from the English edition. It is nevertheless one of the most important political books to have come out in Japan since the war. For it sets out a blueprint for the liberal reformation of Japan.

Whereas the traditional Japanese way is said to be collectivist, paternalist, and anti–laissez faire, Ozawa wants to “adopt fundamentally laissez faire policies.” The traditional Japanese way, so we are often told, is for companies to take care of their employees in exchange for absolute corporate loyalty. The economy was skewed to favor producers over consumers, and the benefits were supposed to trickle down. Ozawa does not disagree with this description. The problem is with the idea of tradition, for this state of affairs, Ozawa writes, “is in no way a traditional Japanese construct: it is something that developed during the period of rapid growth…Japan is no longer catching up. We now rank alongside the United States as an economic power. The social framework tied to rapid growth is no longer appropriate.”

On the traditional system of consensus and one-party domination, he has this to say:

We might draw a picture of the LDP and the opposition, each lounging in a separate bath. The temperature varies a bit from bath to bath, but the water in each feels just right. The parties enjoy casual talk with each other across the room; they bargain, make deals. The atmosphere is easy, the talk lighthearted. Somewhere along the way, though, the bathers forgot the fundamental democratic principle that they must at least occasionally change places.

The banter between the LDP and the Socialists was of course not always as lighthearted as Ozawa says, but as an illustration of the “consensual, deal-making politics” between ruling party and opposition, the metaphor is apt. The reason the opposition was content to be permanently in opposition is that the proportional system guaranteed a certain number of seats to “anti-establishment” candidates—never enough to rule the country, but always enough to sit and make deals (sometimes even accepting money from LDP politicians).

The real struggles for power were between LDP factions. But a certain degree of consensual deal-making came into this as well: to make sure that none of the factions became permanently disenchanted, cabinets would be reshuffled from time to time, to give members of other factions a bite of the cake. Instead of leading the debate on national and international political issues, LDP leaders spent all their time on (often illegal) fund-raising and factional maneuvering. This system persisted for so long, says Ozawa, “because America bore the burden of world peace and stability. The end of the Cold War means the end of Japan’s consensual, deal-making politics.”

None of these opinions would have been remarkable if expressed by an alienated Japanese academic at an American university, or a worldly Japanese foreign correspondent, or, in private, by a sophisticated diplomat. But Ozawa is none of these things. His career has been that of a typical Japanese politician, wheeling and dealing in the thick of the LDP. Yet to judge by his book, Ozawa Ichiro is one of the most liberal political thinkers in Japan. Why, then, is he so hated? Why did I constantly hear him referred to as a “fascist”?

Ito Hideko, a lower house member of the Japan Socialist Party, now renamed (only in English, for some reason) Social Democratic Party, is a reasonable woman. She is a former lawyer interested in social and environmental issues. She was delighted when Hosokawa, in his first speech as prime minister, apologized for Japan’s “act of aggression” during World War II. But Ito called Ozawa a fascist. When I asked her why, she replied that it wasn’t what he said so much as his attitude, his behavior: “He has no sense of citizenship. He is authoritarian. He has no sense of ordinary people’s lives. He has a fascist tendency.”

In the political journal Sekai,4 the journalist Tachibana Yutaka compared Ozawa to the young army officers who tried in 1936 to establish a national socialist military state by staging a putsch. His point was not that Ozawa has the same political aims as they did, but that he shares their fanatical zeal. Both Congresswoman Ito and Tachibana come from the left. But some conservative critics have similar worries. In Shokun!,5 a right-wing political monthly magazine, Ozawa’s style is contrasted with that of traditional consensus politicians. Ozawa, writes one contributor, is a typical example of the “authoritarian personality” that Adorno identified among the Nazis.

Ozawa admits that he is out of the ordinary. He likes to project an air of power. The youngest members of his political entourage often live at his house, doing odd jobs, in the manner of gangsters living with their boss. I went to see him at his office in the Diet building, whose monolithic grandeur, reminiscent of a Babylonian temple, suggests more power than the institution it houses ever had. “Japanese,” Ozawa said, “don’t like to assert themselves. They don’t tell you what they think. I do. So I am hated. I’m well aware of that.”

His language, at least to me, was informal and direct, without the thuggishness sometimes affected by Japanese politicians. But Ozawa can be abrasive, and is often high-handed. When he didn’t like reports appearing about him last year in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the most respected financial newspaper, and in the Sankei Shimbun, a cheeky conservative daily, he barred those papers’ reporters from his press conferences. When representatives from sixteen other news organizations protested, Ozawa canceled his next press conference, stating that press conferences were “not a duty, but a service.” This is not the kind of behavior people expect from politicians in Japan, or, for that matter, in any liberal democracy.

Ozawa likes to call himself Nihonjinbanare, un-Japanese. He told me he identified with two very “un-Japanese” historical figures. One is Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), the fierce, self-made warlord who unified much of Japan by systematically crushing the armies of his rivals and breaking the military power of the Buddhist clergy. In 1571, he destroyed three thousand Buddhist buildings near Kyoto and massacred most of the monks. On the other hand, he was sympathetic to Christian missionaries, drank French wine, and was fascinated by Western technology, especially Western guns. He was assassinated by the father of one of Hosokawa’s ancestors.

Ozawa’s other hero is Okubo Toshimichi (1830–1878). Okubo led the revolt against the Tokugawa shogunate, and set up the Meiji government. Like Oda, he was a great reformer. He traveled to America, and believed in technical education and industrialization. He broke up the feudal domains and abolished samurai privileges. But his modernizing zeal cost him his life: in 1878 he was assassinated by an angry samurai. Reading between the lines of Ozawa’s description of Okubo you can see why he identifies with the Meiji leader. Okubo, he writes in his book, “was censored as an ‘autocrat’ and accused of abuses of power. Undaunted, he maintained his efforts to consolidate in the central government the power that had previously been so dispersed.”

If the unification of Japan by Oda Nobunaga was one revolutionary moment in Japanese history, and the Meiji Restoration was another, Ozawa sees the present time, at the end of the cold war, as equally decisive. And he, Ozawa Ichiro, is in his own as well as others’ eyes, clearly the man of the moment. Self-appointed men of the moment should be viewed with some suspicion, and it is easy to be wary of Ozawa’s infatuation with great leaders, his endless talk about the necessity for strong leadership, in short, his apparent obsession with power. Ozawa’s idea, for example, of placing politicans in the key ministries as “political counselors,” seems an odd way to disentangle the legislative from the executive branches of government. But as a tactic to get his own men into positions of influence it makes sense.

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

This Issue

May 12, 1994