By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - No Japanese politician has suffered such tumultuous torment as Ichiro Ozawa in recent years. By snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the former Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) chief is about to rise, phoenix-like, to power again in Tokyo.
Ozawa, 69, a long-time heavyweight in Japanese politics, was found not guilty of breaking political funding laws in a ruling handed down by the Tokyo District Court on Thursday.
Under investigation, he was forced to resign as party leader in May 2009 - just ahead of a major power shift in Japan's de facto one-party dominance of government in the post-war era. Without investigators' probes, Japan's kingpin Ozawa would have been the nation's prime minister two-and-a-half years ago.
His win in a court of law secures a comeback that has far-reaching implications on both domestic and international fronts. With Ozawa and his cohorts - who constitute the largest faction in the ruling DPJ - strongly opposing a consumption tax hike proposal, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is expected to lose his centripetal force of political power. Ozawa, viewed as pro-China, is also expected to rock the dynamics of Japan-US-China relations.
"This absolutory sentence will cause fatal damage on the already suffering Noda administration," Minoru Morita, a noted political analyst in Tokyo, told Asia Times Online on Thursday. "A consumption tax hike becomes impossible now."
Noda has repeatedly said he vows to realize the tax hike at the expense of his political life. He even expressed his intention to double the consumption tax to 10% by the mid-2010s at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Cannes, France, last November, virtually making the tax hike an international pledge.
Advancing toward a tax hike with the economy still fragile in the aftermath of last year's earthquake and tsunami is bad timing on the part of Noda. According to a poll conducted between April 20 and April 22 by the Nikkei Shimbun and TV Tokyo, 29% of respondents approved of his cabinet, while 62% disapproved, the worst showing since he took office in September 2011.
"The majority of lawmakers in both the DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] are against a tax hike," Morita said. "With Ozawa restarting to move ahead actively from now on, campaigns against a consumption tax hike will get momentum."
In an online broadcast last week, Ozawa signaled that he planned to run in the party's next presidential election in September, meaning if he wins he is the next prime minister. Illegal searches
In January 2011, Ozawa was indicted by a citizen judicial panel for alleged involvement in falsifying political funding reports on 400 million yen (about US$5 million), in violation of the Political Funds Control Law.
Although the trial had focused on whether Ozawa's aides falsified records and whether he was notified and had approved of the falsification, the Tokyo District Court on February 17, 2012, rejected adopting as evidence most of the depositions taken by the investigative team from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office from one of the former aides. The court found the depositions were not credible since Tokyo prosecutors used illegal tactics to obtain them.
Why did prosecutors press ahead against Ozawa even by means of unlawful tactics? Political observers such as Morita view that since Ozawa has advocated shifting decision-making responsibility from bureaucrats to politicians, he provoked a major backlash in the nation's ponderous bureaucracy.
Powerful politicians such as Ozawa, who boldly aims to tackle national problems through strong-arm tactics and risk-taking to confront and rein in the bloated bureaucracy, could be a major threat for Japan's mainstream conservative political elites, ruled by officialdom in Tokyo. Many view this led to the arrest of his aides over political donations by public prosecutors and their accusations against him. "This problem happened just ahead of the 2009 general election, which was about to bring about a change of government," Ozawa said in an interview with a Japanese weekly magazine in January. "Although there was no conclusive evidence, prosecutors conducted a criminal investigation into the head of the largest opposition party, which might cause regime change soon. Something like this ought not to be allowed in a democratic society."
Japanese weekly magazines have criticized the Japanese mass media, most notably the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, as repeatedly portraying Ozawa as the villain by running damaging stories about him based on a constant leak from prosecutors.
"The Japanese mass media won't become unrepentant this time as well," Morita said. "You know what they are?"
As for domestic problems, Ozawa has also criticized the Noda cabinet's move to push the reactivation of two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co's Oi nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture.
International implications In the past, Ozawa has irritated the US by saying the US Navy's 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa prefecture, would be enough to secure the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region from a strategic viewpoint - suggesting that he supported the withdrawal of all other US forces from Japan. In addition, Ozawa has been critical of Noda on Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.
"Although this is also applied to the issue of moving Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan cannot equally talk to the US without showing what kind of the role Japan will play clearly. The problems lie in Japan's negotiating capabilities and the system," Ozawa said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun in February.
Ozawa's comeback to the center of the Japanese politics may ease the nation's tensions with China. In December 2009, Ozawa, then secretary general of the DPJ, accompanied more than 600 people, including 143 DPJ lawmakers from the upper and lower houses of the Diet (parliament), to Beijing. The visit was conducted as part of regular exchanges between the DPJ and the Chinese Communist Party, whose general secretary is Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Ozawa is widely viewed as pro-China. His background and roots go back to a group founded by late prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, which signed a Japan-China joint communique that helped normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1972.
But Morita disagreed with this view. "He is different from Tanaka, so he is not pro-China by his nature."
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist.