Tokyo Notes

Ichiro Ozawa Won’t Change Tune

DPJ bruiser Ichiro Ozawa still won’t testify despite Kan’s overtures. Is he preparing to leave the party?

They may both share the same surname, but while one has battled against the odds to return to the public stage, the other is doing everything he can to pull a cloak over his affairs.

Wielding the baton for a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at New York's Carnegie Hall on Saturday was Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. The 75-year-old lion-maned maestro was making a high profile comeback from surgery earlier this year for oesophageal cancer.

But while the conductor thrilled the audience with his feverish performance, his namesake, Ichiro Ozawa, continues to bring members of the government out in a cold sweat.

The Democratic Party of Japan bruiser has repeatedly refused to stand before a Diet ethics panel to explain his involvement in a political finding scandal. Ozawa maintains that his hands are clean and that the legal process will prove his innocence. He’s likely to be indicted as early as January.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Monday became the latest senior DPJ figure to try but fail to convince the party heavyweight to appear (DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku have also come up short).

In the 90-minute one-on-one meeting, Kan reportedly pressed Ozawa, saying, 'You said at a press conference that you would (appear) if the Diet decided you should. Would you stand if we started proceedings?' Ozawa maintained that he had no need to appear, even if the Diet summoned him.

Perhaps Kan didn't feed the old dog a big enough bone?

The ethics panel is likely to meet in the New Year to vote on whether to summon Ozawa. The problem, though, is that its decision isn’t legally binding and as Ozawa says, he’s not required to appear. Testimony made in front of the panel also is not sworn.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party has anyway said it would boycott (a common negative parliamentary tactic here) a vote by the panel given its nonbinding nature. The LDP has been using the alleged scandal and Ozawa's reluctance to appear before the committee to drive a wedge between his supporters (many of them first-term lawmakers) and those in the Kan/Okada/Sengoku camp.

The tactic seems to be working. The above three DPJ big hitters have failed to convince Ozawa to explain himself, and the party leadership now appears out of options. It has played a poor hand in trying to pressgang Ozawa to stand, and in doing so, may have alienated a large number of Ozawa's many supporters in the party.

This rift in the party could now be beyond repair (a lot could hinge on the role played former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who recently announced he wouldn’t retire from politics as he had previously inferred). Speculation mounts that Ozawa could take his backers and form a new party before the end of the year—a trick he pulled off in 1993 when he left the then ruling LDP with several dozen of his cronies.

The chances are that Ozawa could be conducting a new orchestra before long. But will he playing the same tune?