Japan's arch rebel rejoins alliance

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The Independent Online
HOWEVER RUDE they may be privately, it is rare for Japanese politicians to excoriate one another in public

But this is not a rule that applies in the case of Ichiro Ozawa. A former speaker of the Japanese Diet famously described his face as that of "a toad who has just licked something terribly bitter". Hiromu Nonaka, presently the government's chief spokesman, denounced him as "Satan" and "an American infiltrator". And Mr Ozawa is quite capable of giving as good as he gets.

During a debate about the future of Japanese security policy a few years ago, he quelled the warblings of one septuagenarian cabinet minister by observing that "those who won't be around in the 21st Century should remain silent". For the past five years, his deepest contempt has been reserved for his former colleagues in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which he personally brought down in 1993, leading a revolt of MPs which drove it from office after 38 years in power.

Mr Ozawa already had many enemies in the left-leaning opposition parties, and his desertion made him the bitter foe of most of those left in the LDP. Even after its return to government the following year, 56-year old Mr Ozawa, as the most senior opposition leader, railed against his former party as "an old biddies' retirement home". This makes the events of the past week all the more hard to understand.

After two months of difficult negotiations, the prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, announced on Thursday a coalition between the LDP and Mr Ozawa's Liberal Party (Jiyuto). Only one Liberal politician, the party's former secretary general, Takeshi Noda, will join the cabinet, and the LDP has made vague concessions to the Liberals on a couple of policy points. But, by any reckoning, the alliance represents a dramatic U-turn for Mr Ozawa, one of the most influential figures of recent Japanese history. The question now is whether it represents the capitulation of a political has-been, or the latest cunning power-play by a brilliant politician.

In Japan, a country sadly lacking in vivid political personalities, Mr Ozawa has always stood out, although his uniqueness is simple enough: unlike almost all his peers, he has a set of consistent, intellectually rigorous policy principles which he has pinned to the mast and challenged the world to judge him by. His 1993 revolt was Japan's biggest political upset since the Second World War and appeared to have transformed politics for ever. But Japan has always had an uncanny ability to resist change; nearly six years on, Mr Ozawa's revolution has almost completely failed to live up to its promise.

His goals, set out in his best-selling book, Blueprint for a New Japan, are clear and articulate: after 50 years as a quasi-democracy, completely dependent for its security on the United States, the time has come for Japan to become "a normal country".

For all its mighty economic and financial muscle, Japan remains a third- rate power in every other international sphere. Mr Ozawa dreams of a Japan in which foreign and domestic companies would strive on equal terms to achieve the lowest prices and most brilliant innovations, where politicians presented themselves in terms of ideas and policies, rather than narrow local interests. Above all, with its new seat on the UN Security Council, Japan would proudly send its troops on peace-keeping missions around the world.

For a few months in 1993, these goals appeared to be achievable as a coalition of reform-minded parties, inspired by Mr Ozawa's agenda, led the country. But within 18 months the LDP were back in government in a cynical coalition with their old enemies, the Socialist Party. Despite a series of catastrophic cock-ups and disasters - like the cack-handed responses to the Kobe earthquake and the nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway - the opposition movement steadily lost its momentum, as the LDP has gradually won back its majority. And for this, Mr Ozawa must bear the blame.

The truth is that, for all his radical ideas, he is by upbringing a deeply traditional politician of the worst kind. His father was an MP before him. His political mentors were the former prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, and his henchman, Shin Kanemaru, both of whom ended their careers disgraced by corruption scandals.

Throughout his career he has alienated potential supporters with his arrogance and secrecy. Most telling of all was his refusal to accept a cabinet post even when it was offered by Mr Obuchi. He could have been out at the front, actively implementing the policies which he set out so articulately. But he prefers remaining where he always has - behind the scenes and in the shadows, where the real power lies.

Increasingly in the past two years, Mr Ozawa's obsession with Japan's international role has come to seem an irrelevance as the country has embarked on its worst recession since the War. With the economy shrinking, unemployment rising to record levels, and a real risk of corporate collapses among some of Japan's biggest banks and corporations, questions about the nation's security forces are not of great concern to most Japanese. But ever since the idea of a coalition was first floated last November, that is what the two parties have spent much of their time discussing.

Some, particularly businessmen, are cheered by the alliance because of the hope that it will strengthen the government's ability to pass decisive legislation necessary for restructuring Japan's stricken banks - the support of Mr Ozawa's MPs will improve the government's standing in the Diet's Upper House, where it still lacks a majority.

While Mr Ozawa's revolution was Japan's biggest political upset since the War, with his return to the LDP fold the excitement which it awoke appears to have been quenched permanently. Mr Ozawa and his enemies are on speaking terms again, but Japan was a more hopeful, entertaining place when they were calling one another names.