Last updated: January 22, 2010 5:05 pm

Investigators close on DPJ’s linchpin

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In a saga that threatens to undermine the prospects for Japan’s government, the biggest beast in the country’s politics is at bay, surrounded by media critics and a quieter but more dangerous pack of prosecutors interrogating his aides and poring over his financial affairs.

For Ichiro Ozawa, the mastermind of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s dramatic rise to power last year, the investigation into a 2004 land purchase by his fund-raising organisation is the latest instalment in a turbulent career.

For the DPJ, the much-leaked inquiry spells a public relations disaster that is fuelling doubts about its ability to deliver on the promises of change. Those pledges powered the party to victory in August’s general election in the world’s second-largest economy.

Sliding public support for the cabinet is fuelling speculation that Mr Ozawa, the party’s secretary-general, who is widely seen as the DPJ’s “shadow shogun”, with greater clout than the prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, will be forced to resign his party post ahead of an important Diet upper house election in July.

Mr Ozawa’s role as the DPJ’s organisational linchpin means such a departure would be an immediate “disaster” for the 10-year-old party and its drive to transform Japan’s politics by limiting the power of elite bureaucrats, says Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

After vowing last week to battle prosecutors whose arrest of three of his former and current aides threatened a “truly dark” future for Japanese democracy, Mr Ozawa is expected to sit down on Saturday with his tormentors to try to clarify issues surrounding the land deal.

Mainstream media have reported allegations that money from construction companies might have been used to fund the purchase and that it was not properly reported, as required by law. Mr Ozawa, who was forced to step down as DPJ leader last year because of a separate funding investigation, insists he paid for the land with his own money and has nothing to hide.

Some in Tokyo political circles see the case as a defining challenge for Mr Ozawa, a famous backroom dealer who was reared on the old-style money politics of the former ruling Liberal Democratic party. Prosecutors fear he could soon be in a position to curb their expansive authority and autonomy.

“This is the final war between Mr Ozawa and the prosecutors,” said Takao Toshikawa, a political analyst, who expects investigators to step up their probe following Saturday’s voluntary questioning.

Opposition parties that were left in disarray by the DPJ’s landslide victory in August have seized on Mr Ozawa’s woes and the recent investigation surrounding fund-raising for Mr Hatoyama. That stance has made the scandals a central topic of Diet discussions originally intended to focus on government budget plans.

The saga is unfolding after a faltering start for the government. In testy Diet sessions, Mr Hatoyama has been excoriated for Mr Ozawa’s reluctance to answer questions on his funding and for the prime minister’s own acceptance that his fundraisers took Y1.26bn ($13.8m, £8.5m, €9.8m) in undeclared funds from his mother.

Yoshimi Watanabe, leader of the small opposition Your party, played on Mr Hatoyama’s nickname, “the Alien”, to mock his insistence that he knew nothing of the fund transfers.

“We are earthlings here, so please explain how this could happen in a way earthlings can understand,” Mr Watanabe said on Friday.

Analysts say the DPJ may be better off without Mr Ozawa, its biggest star – a sometimes merciless political operator whose nickname is “the Destroyer” and who some former comrades blame for the failure of opposition groups in which he played leading roles in the past .

“In the long run, Mr Ozawa stepping down will be a very good opportunity for the DPJ to become a more sustainable political force,” said Prof Yamaguchi.

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