Japan's Ozawa May Get a New Platform

MENTION Ichiro Ozawa to any Japanese, and you won't get a neutral reaction. The bullheaded back-room leader of the Renaissance Party is either hated or admired; few citizens voice sentiments in between.

Smack in the middle of a critical election campaign, Mr. Ozawa has published a book which shows a seldom-noticed aspect of this thoroughly professional politician - that of visionary revolutionary. Entitled "Building a New Japan," the book is Ozawa's personal prescription for how to take Japan into the 21st century.

"Times have changed," Ozawa writes. "Japanese-style democracy" is no longer able to respond adequately to the changes taking place at home and abroad.... We can no longer enjoy the luxury of devoting ourselves exclusively to our own economic development as we did during the Cold War."

"To be an autonomous nation," he continues, "we must ensure the autonomy of the individual.... Japan's most pressing need is a change in the consciousness of our people."

An individual-oriented society, as distinct from a consensus-minded one, has been a goal for many Japanese since the country came out of self-imposed feudal isolation 150 years ago, but it is unusual for a conservative politician to articulate it.

Even more unusual is Ozawa's advocacy of "five freedoms," including "freedom from the company" and "freedom from regulation." These two alone, if realized, would undermine the basic building blocks of Japan's economic success story: unquestioning loyalty to the company, and business-government collusion within a society regulated with the consent of the regulated. Ozawa argues that these practices may have been necessary when Japan was trying to catch up with the West, but that now they only hamper the f reer, more open society the country requires.

His proposals are all the more startling because they are being voiced by a man who has been at the core of the political and economic system he now condemns.

Internationally, Ozawa wants Japan to become a "normal nation," not one hiding behind constitutional restrictions on use of armed force, but acting in concert with the United States to help build a UN-centered new world order. "The time has passed when everything could be left to America to handle," Ozawa argues. "Japan has a duty to manage its considerable influence well and to contribute to the world around it."

How serious is Ozawa? To most Japanese, he is the embodiment of what is called "money politics" - an image so strong that few pay attention to his ideas. He was a close associate of Shin Kanemaru, the money-grabbing, scandal-tainted former political boss and kingmaker. First as deputy Cabinet secretary, then as secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democrats, Ozawa was at the center of political power when a series of major scandals exposed the seamy underside of Japan's political and business worlds. In person, Ozawa is a fascinating blend of rice-roots politician with a strong attachment to traditional values, and of energetic problem-solver. When in office, he wasn't afraid to knock bureaucratic heads together to settle trade disputes with the United States. He also has a restless curiosity about political systems, as when he traveled to Britain recently to see how the single-seat constituency system works and how corruption-free the British election system is.

Although Ozawa himself has never been charged with wrongdoing, the Japanese media distrust him and doubt the reformist credentials of the Renaissance Party he and Tsutomu Hata formed after quitting the Liberal-Democrats last month. A revolt led by Ozawa and Mr. Hata accounted for passage of a nonconfidence motion against Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa June 18 and plunged the country into a general election just as President Clinton and other world leaders were preparing to travel to Tokyo for the annual Group of Seven economic summit.

The Ozawa-Hata revolt split the Liberal Democrats and raised the possibility that after 38 years of corrupt one-party rule, Japanese voters may be ready to try a non-Liberal Democrat government. If they do, Hata could well be prime minister and Ozawa a prominent member of the new administration. Ozawa will then have a chance to show to what extent he will start to implement the policies he so boldly proclaims in his book.

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