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The Significance of Ozawa's Acquittal

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The April 26 acquittal of Japan's most important politician on charges connected with delayed reporting of a financial transfer is greatly significant for Japan and possibly its neighbors as well. Ichiro Ozawa has for almost two decades been considered the one Japanese politician with the organizational skills, the understanding of the career officials who in practice run the country, the political network building capacity and, above all, a thorough grasp of what causes the notorious weakness at the center, to have the best chance of reforming the governing system in line with what the electorate and political specialists outside the realms of vested interests have long believed to be desirable.

In 1993 he gave the crucial start signal for the reformist movement by leaving the LDP, which had been the mainstay of Japan's de facto one-party system since 1955, and which ruled in name only, leaving actual policy-making in the hands of a dominant (and uncommonly skillfull) group of administrators within the bureaucracy. He had laid down his credo in a book advocating for Japan to become "a normal country" (with a center of political accountability), and eventually brought the various groups of reformist minded politicians together in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), engineering its grand electoral victory in the summer of 2009 that substantially ended the one-party system.

While stirring the imagination of large numbers of reformist-minded Japanese frustrated with the apparent inability of the career officials and their supposed masters in the LDP to have Japan effectively adjust to much changed circumstances at home and abroad, he made automatic enemies among the guardians of Japan's social order who take their task of preserving the status quo of the political structure extremely seriously. Crucial in this context is the fact that the large daily newspapers and the national broadcaster NHK, whose notorious well-nigh uniform presentation of events enable them essentially to create political reality in Japan, have senior editors who share an obsession with the senior career officials to preserve social -- and thus political -- order at all costs.

The DPJ was obviously a big problem in the eyes of these order keepers, and Ozawa was seen as the single biggest individual threat to the half-century-old political system. Its guardians have a powerful tool at their disposal used against politicians who are considered as becoming too big for their boots or, for that matter, entrepreneurs considered too powerfully "maverick" for the health of the system. The public prosecutor, who has great discretionary power in Japan, warns the major newspapers and TV that they are ready to unleash a scandal, and cameras and reporters will be on the spot when the special police team shows up to take the alleged culprit into custody and to carry boxes with supposedly incriminating evidence out of his home or office. In the weeks or months that follow developments of frequently esoteric and incomprehensible detail fill the front pages.

It was entirely predictable that before the summer 2009 general elections, a scandal had to be concocted to prevent Ozawa from becoming prime minister. This happened in the spring when his assistants were alleged to have misreported a financial transaction. A heavyweight parlementarian of the then still-"ruling" LDP remarked at the time that if the Justice Ministry applied the same criteria to all politicians, the Japanese Diet (parliament) would be half empty. What happened in Ozawa's case was merely the continuation of a character assassination campaign by the mainstream newspapers and elements in the bureaucracy that had begun shortly after the party-political upheaval of 1993. This has been very effective and especially Japanese housewives are said to become disgusted when they see Ozawa's face on their TV screens. In the winter of 2009-10 one was given the impression from newspaper front pages that Ozawa was alleged to have committed mass murder or high treason instead of having connived with his secretaries to what at worst might be seen as an administrative misdemeanor, of a kind that elsewhere in advanced countries would hardly have been noticed. The public prosecutor had to concede not to have found evidence against Ozawa, but the Asahi newspaper (which tends to take the lead in such matters) came with an editorial saying that he was still guilty, and the justice people pulled a never-before-used trick out of their hats. A few years before they had introduced a law based on an arrangement that had originally been established by McArthur's occupation of Japan but was hardly ever invoked. It provides for a special council consisting of ordinary citizens with the power to demand mandatory indictment.

That the judge did not accommodate the officials who used this utterly transparent trick is very good news for Japan, where more than 99 percent of cases brought to trial are decided in favor of the prosecutor. Judicial intimidation can now no longer be seen as an ultimate determinant in Japanese politics. But the story does not end here.

Ozawa's return to the center of Japanese public life and, after the suspension of his membership has been lifted, to the inner folds of the party of which he was the main architect, may augur a restart of an activist DPJ being true to its reformist manifesto with which it gained its great electoral victory in 2009.

The DPJ's first cabinet, led by Yukio Hatoyama, was torpedoed by the senior editors of Japan's media, by sabotage on the part of especially the foreign and defense ministries and, most effectively, by a Washington that had taken Japan's status quo for granted and wanted to nip in the bud the interest of Ozawa and Hatoyama had shown in a serious improvement of relations with China and plans for a regional ASEAN+3 (China, Korea and Japan) economic cooperation. President Obama refused to take Hatoyama up on the latter's repeated suggestions for a meeting to discuss long-term developments in Asia and related matters of common interest. Instead Washington's Japan handlers, now almost exclusively alumni from the Pentagon, drove matters revolving around the relocation of American Marines on Okinawa (which would have prompted an Okinawan uprising) to a head, leading to the resignation of Hatoyama who had been misled by advisers. Beset with problems caused by the fabricated scandal, Ozawa could not steer the new ruling party out of its difficulties, and a demoralized DPJ began to inch close to a split, and to show other signs of gradual disintegration.

The current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, mistakenly chosen for neutrality in party matters, has staked his political future on the passage of a law for doubling the consumption tax. Some DPJ vice-ministers have already resigned over this ill-advised decision. Success would mean a great victory for Finance Ministry bureaucrats, the curtailing of whose power was one of the main objectives for the DPJ. Attention has now moved to the possibility that Noda will trigger a break up the DPJ by making common cause with the LDP, which may agree to the tax in exchange for Noda's promise to disband parliament, after which the LDP hopes to regain power through new elections.

Another notable aspect of this story is that the struggle for the soul of government and politics in what remains the world's second- or third-most important industrial country has gone as good as unnoticed by the rest of the world. The very few remaining full-time correspondents based in Tokyo have not found editors interested in such things. Political reporting from Japan, most of it based on how the status quo addicted mainstream Japanese newspapers interpret things, must be seen for what it is: a huge journalistic scandal.