Japan’s Political Grim Reaper
Image Credit: Takato Marui

Japan’s Political Grim Reaper


Ichiro Ozawa’s decision to step out of the shadows and stand in next month’s Democratic Party of Japan leadership election against Prime Minister Naoto Kan will no doubt be applauded at party headquarters – that is, the headquarters of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

The move by the DPJ’s manipulator-in-chief shows scant regard for the interests of his party or a nation sliding into economic gloom. Instead, it appears to be an opportunistic shot at fulfilling a long-held personal ambition. For while he has served as leader of the DPJ in opposition and secretary general in office, Ozawa has long been the kingmaker but never the king, and this could be his last chance to wear the prime ministerial crown.

But does he have other motives for standing?

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Ozawa has been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending scandal over misreported funds, and public prosecutors plan to grill him on the subject for a fourth time after the Sept. 14 poll. He can, however, wriggle out of questioning and a possible indictment if he becomes premier thanks to a clause in Japan’s top law. Article 75 of the Constitution states: ‘Ministers of State, during their tenure of office, shall not be subject to legal action without the consent of the Prime Minister.’ Much in the same way, Ozawa is rumoured to have kept prosecutors off his back by clinging onto his previous role as secretary general for longer than many in the DPJ desired.

Ozawa may also have a personal beef with Kan that could have prompted him to run. The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper pointed out that Kan has given Ozawa the cold shoulder since becoming prime minister, only offering Ozawa an ‘honorary’ role such as advisor in a new Kan-led administration. The Yomiuri also speculated that Kan’s refusal to appoint Ozawa to a key post could have convinced former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to throw his weight behind Ozawa, his tag-team partner.

The DPJ’s 412 Diet (lower and upper house) lawmakers, 2,382 regional assembly members and about 350,000 party members are eligible to vote for the party leader. But weighting means that legislators account for 824 of the 1,224 points up for grabs, making votes cast by various groupings of Diet members the likely key to the outcome.

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