Japan's 'Destroyer' torpedoed by scandal
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - It's all darkness one step ahead in the political world. Japan's main
opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, a much-anticipated election favorite, faces the
end of the road for his premiership bid - and even the end to his career - over
a political donation scandal that has already led to the arrest of his
This scandal involving Ozawa, 66, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ),
has rocked the nation just as his party appeared set to unseat the pro-United
States Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in general elections that must be held by
September - a major power shift in Japan's 50-plus years of de facto one-party
The fate of Ozawa has far-reaching implications beyond the domestic arena of
politics. For instance, last month he said that the US 7th Fleet, based in
Yokosuka, Kanagawa prefecture, would be enough to secure the US presence in the
Far East from
a strategic viewpoint - suggesting that he supported the withdrawal of all
other US forces from Japan.
Ozawa, a shrewd veteran Japanese lawmaker and former heavyweight in the ruling
LDP, has earned himself the nickname "The Destroyer", a Japanese version of the
Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer, for his record of creating and breaking up
parties and for crushing personal ties and letting go of many talented aides.
The DPJ led by Ozawa, however, won an overwhelming victory in the 2007 Upper
House elections, crushing the LDP's election hopes. But now, he is casting a
shadow over Japanese hopes of democratic change in political power.
Ozawa's political fundraising organization allegedly received illicit donations
from 2003 to 2006, totaling 21 million yen (US$210,000), from Nishimatsu
Construction Co, a Tokyo-based company listed on the First Section of the Tokyo
Stock Exchange that is also scandal-tainted, according to the Tokyo District
Public Prosecutors Office. Takanori Okubo, 47, Ozawa's top aide who serves as
the chief accountant of Ozawa's the implicated fundraising organization,
Rikuzankai, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly falsifying political
contribution records after Tokyo prosecutors raided the organizations's office.
Nishimatsu's alleged donations are alleged to have been funneled through dummy
organizations to Rikuzankai.
But Ozawa said in a televised news conference broadcast on Wednesday that he
would not resign, and that the authorities' raid on Rikuzankai was "an abnormal
method that goes beyond conventional manners. It is an unfair use of state and
prosecution power, both politically and legally".
He added that the donations were dealt with appropriately under the law,
reported to authorities and made public, and that he had "done nothing to be
It is well known that Ozawa and Nishimatsu Construction have had close ties for
decades. The second son of former vice prime minister Shin Kanemaru, or Ozawa's
former boss, married a daughter of a former president of Nishimatsu. Ozawa
under the protege of Kanemaru scaled the political ladder by becoming a general
secretary of the LDP at the age of 47 in 1989. Kanemaru and Ozawa are also
connected by marriage.
Political observers say investigative authorities are no doubt aiming to hold
Ozawa as responsible for the illicit donations.
Should Ozawa resign or be arrested, that would cause serious damage to the DPJ.
But the party may still have a good chance of winning the election, even
without Ozawa. For one thing, Nishimatsu Construction Co has also apparently
made political donations to ruling lawmakers semi-annually for over 10 years,
including former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, and the scandal could further
spill-over into the ruling parties. No public polls by the Japanese media have
come out since the scandal broke - though they are likely over the weekend.
"Ozawa will be forced to resign sooner or later," said Minoru Morita, a noted
political analyst in Tokyo. "It's only a matter of time. Ozawa succeeded
Kanemaru's strong ties with Nishimatsu Construction while carrying a lot of
weight on public works in his stronghold of the northern Tohoku region.
Compared to Ozawa's ties with Nishimatsu, ruling party lawmakers' ties with
Nishmatsu are much thinner."
"But with the Japanese people seriously disappointed by the Aso administration,
the DPJ is still seemingly set for an overwhelming victory in the next election
if the party chooses a fresh and young leader, riding the tide of generational
change. The problem is everyone including former presidents Naoto Kan, Yukio
Hatoyama, Katsuya Okada and Seiji Maehara will be willing to be the next
Nearly all 47 prefectural chapters of the DPJ still support Ozawa's decision to
remain party leader, despite his aide's arrest over the donations scandal, the
Asahi Shimbun reported on Friday. As a possible successor of Ozawa, eight
prefectural chapters chose Katsuya Okada, 55, who has a clean image and
resigned as party chief in 2005 to take responsibility for DPJ's crushing
defeat in the Lower House election. Naoto Kan, 62, and Yukio Hatoyama, 62, each
obtained support from three prefectural chapters, the newspaper said.
Prime Minister Taro Aso, one of the most unpopular leaders in Japan's post-war
history, now has a lot riding on the controversy, which could persuade him to
hold a snap election. His approval rate has plummeted to around 10% amid
mounting domestic pressure for him to step down over his numerous gaffes,
mishandling of a deepening recession and unwise defense of a tipsy finance
minister who recently resigned after appearing to be drunk at a Group of Seven
meeting in Rome last month.
Since last year, it has been said in Japanese political circles that the
unpopular Aso had only two chances of reviving his political fortunes. One is
the Nishimatsu bribe scandal, which came to light in June 2008 when prosecutors
searched Nishimatsu's head office in Tokyo in connection with the former
executive's suspected violation of the foreign exchange law. Prosecutors
suspected that the 100 million yen he brought into Japan was part of a slush
fund set up in Thailand.
The other is if the Japanese Self Defense Force's anti-missile-defense system
should successfully shoot down a North Korean Taepodong-2 ballistic missile,
should Pyongyang actually fire one. This would show Aso's cabinet is capable of
Ozawa late last month drew fire from political quarters around the globe over
his remarks suggesting the US Navy's 7th Fleet would be sufficient when
discussing the scale of the US military presence in the Far East. Ozawa may
have been trying to make a niche of his own as his views on political and
economic areas often match those of LDP lawmakers, such as former prime
minister Junichiro Koizumi.
The wider DPJ still has not entirely endorsed Ozawa's views on the US military
presence, though it has consistently advocated policies of multilateral
cooperation and called for a more equal partnership with the US. The party has
often refused to support US policies, notably over the war in Iraq and the use
of Japanese naval vessels for refueling missions in the US-led war in
"Should Japan seek the withdrawal of US troops from Japanese territory, that
would create a security vacuum in East Asia, and could create distance between
our two countries," John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a think-tank in Washington DC, told Asia Times Online.
"China has increased defense spending, and provides little transparency into
its policies, programs and objectives. Changes of this significance need to be
considered carefully and comprehensively."
Some Japanese military analysts, such as Shunji Taoka, meanwhile, have defended
Ozawa's remark. They see the withdrawal of US troops as more realistic, just as
the two nations have decided to relocate about 8,000 3rd Marine Expeditionary
Force personnel and their roughly 9,000 family members from Okinawa by 2014 as
a first step towards much larger cuts, and as the US is also committed to the
transfer of its wartime operational command over South Korean troops to Seoul
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. He can be contacted at