TOKYO — Ichiro Ozawa, Japan's most controversial politician--hailed for his strategic vision but reviled for his autocratic style--announced Monday that he will step out from the shadows and run for president of the nation's major opposition party.
Ozawa's announcement electrified the Japanese political world and raised hopes that his dynamic leadership and daring policy positions will invigorate the nation's moribund politics and restart a sweeping reform process.
The 53-year-old secretary-general of the New Frontier Party bolted the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, and engineered its stunning fall from power in 1993. After less than one year in power, Ozawa's forces were ousted by the LDP and two other parties last year; since then the wily tactician had dropped from public view and devoted himself to plotting campaign strategies for general elections expected next year.
But a growing number of business and government leaders, who view Ozawa as the only politician with the intellect and drive to shake Japan out of its economic and social malaise, urged him to run for party president--and he startled the public by agreeing.
He will take on former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata in the party election; current party president and former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu has agreed to step down and support Ozawa. The results of the mail-in vote, which is open to anyone who pays $10, will be announced Dec. 28.
"From the beginning, I thought I was not the type of person for top leader . . . my assertions are rather severe," Ozawa said in a live interview with Asahi Television on Monday night. But Ozawa said his supporters appealed to him, saying that Japan, mired in its fifth year of recession and virtual paralysis on everything from tax reform to decentralization, desperately needs a decision maker.
Hata, who bolted the LDP with Ozawa, is well liked as an amiable consensus builder but is faulted for fuzzy policies and a lack of strong leadership. In announcing last week that he would run, Hata advocated economic reform, decentralization and a focus on such problems as school bullying but offered no concrete proposals.
Ozawa, on the other hand, faxed a 27-point policy platform to media organizations Monday laying out details of a breathtaking reform vision that, if implemented, would bring about the most significant national transformation since the Allied occupation introduced democracy to the war-torn nation.
To finance the needs of the nation's rapidly aging society, Ozawa advocates halving the income tax and increasing the consumption tax--which is currently 3%--to 10% after 10 years. To increase Japan's global role, he proposes forming a special force empowered only to serve in U.N. peacekeeping operations. That move is aimed at calming fears that overseas ventures by the Self-Defense Forces would violate Japan's peace constitution and could lead to a resurgence of militarism.
Ozawa squarely asserts that politicians should take control from nonelected bureaucrats in shaping the nation's policies, and he advocates strengthening the prime minister's office and increasing the number of political appointees to the ministries.
Ozawa also advocates scaling back the overarching central government to 15 ministries and reorganizing the myriad villages and towns into 300 super-cities for stronger local autonomy. He proposes a shorter workweek, a system to reemploy older women and those pressured to drop out of the labor force after having a child, and a new employment system that would de-emphasize academic credentials--putting an eventual end to the notorious "examination hell" that subjects much of Japan's youth to years of mind-numbing memorization drills.
Despite his intellectual intensity, however, Ozawa's autocratic style has drawn a legion of enemies, and it is far from certain that he could win against the more popular Hata.
He has been accused of strong-arm tactics, such as threatening to withhold electoral support from party members who don't toe his line, and for cozy ties with the Soka Gakkai, Japan's powerful but controversial lay Buddhist organization. Ozawa said, however, that he never personally received campaign support from the group during his long years in politics.