Ichiro Ozawa scandal clouds Japan's push for reform
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan vowed to shake up the country's powerful bureaucracy. Instead it's bogged down in a corruption probe against key strategist Ichiro Ozawa.
Japan's ruling party is pushing back against a legal probe that could threaten its ambitious plans to reform the country’s politics.Skip to next paragraph
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The Democratic Party of Japan rode to power last August on a wave of populism. It vowed to take power away from bureaucrats and give it to the people's elected representatives, part of its lofty goal of making government more accountable and transparent.
But now, the party's main powerbroker, Ichiro Ozawa, is under investigation over allegedly accepting bribes and buying land with the money. Prosecutors raided his offices and arrested three former secretaries, and will question Ozawa himself on Saturday.
With its key strategist under a cloud, the party is casting the probe as the revenge of the bureaucrats for the new government's bid to curb their clout.
Ozawa himself lashed out against the probe in an address to party members last weekend, saying it "cast a shadow over the nation's democracy" and suggesting prosecutors may be politically motivated.
In a Jan. 15 interview at her office, Kuniko Tanioka, a DPJ upper house legislator, said she found it "puzzling" that prosecutors leaked so many details about an ongoing probe to the media. She suggested that some in the judiciary were trying to "extend some influence over politics."
"The bureaucracy looks at themselves as the victims of the change of government," said Ms. Tanioka. "[They're] forgetting the fact that they were themselves victimizing the people, and forgetting that the government is not theirs."
As one example of bureaucrats' past sins, she cited the recently revealed, secret deal by which Japan agreed to allow nuclear-armed United States vessels enter Japanese ports during the Cold war. As recently as last year, bureaucrats brought before the Diet insisted that no such deal existed, Tanioka said. "In other words, they were betraying the people."
Tanioka said the bureaucracy clings to an outdated mindset that has no place in 21st century Japan. "They still don't understand that the people are the rulers of the country," said Tanioka. "They are like tradition-worshippers – but society has changed drastically."
Locking the bureaucrats out
Since World War II, business-friendly coalitions led by the Liberal Democratic Party have governed through backroom deals and cozy relations with bureaucrats and big contractors. Often, LDP-appointed ministers were only figureheads, with the bureaucrats holding the real power.
Japan's new, center-left government promised to change that. The government's most visible champion of people power is Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a one-time human rights and environmental activist. He famously wrested from bureaucrats evidence of the spread of tainted blood when he served as health minister in the mid-1990s.