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Japan turns its back on man who won over the world

Richard Lloyd Parry on the rapid rise and fall of reformer Ichiro Ozawa
Tokyo - Japan may possess the world's richest banks, its second largest economy and many of its biggest and most successful companies but, throughout its modern history, it has lacked one commodity essential to countries intent on wielding true global power and influence: distinctive and charismatic politicians.

When world leaders gather for their global think-ins, such as the G7 Summit in Lyons at the end of this month, the views and consent of the Japanese count as much as any. Outside the conference rooms and diplomatic huddles, however, they are eclipsed: when the Bills, Jacques and Helmuts line up for their group photograph, it is the Japanese Prime Minister who always seems to wind up at the end, wearing the lost smile of one who wishes he was somewhere else.

This is what, until recently at least, made Ichiro Ozawa so different. Since the publication two years ago of his much translated book, Blueprint For A New Japan, he has been feted all over the world as a new style of Japanese politician, a debater and confrontationalist who can deal with his foreign peers on equal terms.

Ozawa's ambition to turn Japan into a "normal country", with a transparent political system, capable of taking its global responsibilities as a peaceful but active military power, have won him the respect of politicians all over the world.

This week he has been in London, with eight young members of Shinshinto, the "New Frontier Party", of which he is leader. He has spoken with Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, the Prime Minister, John Major, and his deputy, Michael Heseltine.

To British politicians, Ozawa's glossy sheen has plainly not worn off. In Japan, however, things look very different. At home he is looking increasingly like yesterday's man; all his brave ideas about international responsibility and reform of the stagnant political system cannot disguise the fact that he has singularly failed to cut it as a domestic politician.

For a while it looked as if he might just have pulled it off. Three years ago Japanese politics underwent its greatest shake-up since the Second World War when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its majority in the Diet after 38 years of unbroken power.

Despite remaining the biggest single force, the LDP was replaced in government by a coalition of small new parties. Their principal policy was reform of the political system, in particular the "iron triangle" of Diet members, businessmen and, above all, the unelected bureaucracy. Their chief ideologue and driving force was Mr Ozawa.

But within weeks, the coalition was in trouble, bogged down in scandal and internal feuding. One of its promises - reform of the electoral system - squeaked through the Diet but in the summer of 1993, Mr Ozawa's reformers were ousted from power in an extraordinary marriage between the LDP and the Social Democratic Party.

This creaky alliance between conservatives and former socialists, now led by Ryutaro Hashimoto, has endured three difficult years. Two national disasters - the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack - as well as a stream of bureaucratic and governmental scandals, have been met with blithering indecision by the government, but Mr Ozawa's party has singularly failed to exploit the situation. Shinshinto's support ratings are stuck at low levels; younger party members are now talking openly about breaking away to form a new New Party.

Few believe that the present arrangement can survive the next election, likely to be called for next January. There are even rumours that Ozawa will step down as Shinshinto leader, perhaps even after the present Diet session which ends next week.

These, perhaps unfairly, have been fuelled by his trip to London. The Shinshinto leader has suffered at least one heart attack, and the whispers have it that he visits Britain not only to call on politicians, but also to see a heart specialist.

Meaningful change can only be brought about from inside by one on intimate terms with the very power brokers whose power he would dismantle. For all his fresh ideas, Mr Ozawa is the consummate operator - before leaving the LDP he was a senior member of Japan's biggest, and most corrupt, political faction. Backroom deals and arm twisting are his speciality; no Japanese election, after all, can be fought without the financial backing of rich businessmen.

Mr Ozawa's biggest failure has been in finding a new political method to match his reformist language. So far he has succeeded in alienating all sides - both the voters and younger politicians to whom he once seemed a breath of fresh air, and the old guard who still make up the majority of the Diet. Three years ago, Mr Ozawa looked like a new political species. Now he resembles an awkward hybrid - the head of reformer on the body of an old political dinosaur.