The center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated the Japanese Diet for more than a half-century. It oversaw the economic stagnation of the 1990s, and it revitalized itself in the 2000s only to fall into fractious disarray by 2006. The voting public has finally had enough -- and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) looks almost certain to take power in the Aug. 30 general election.
The stark shift in political tides is perhaps best described as the LDP's loss, more so than the DPJ's gain. But the opposition party has transformed itself from an inchoate also-ran to a disciplined and united political movement. That change is mostly due to one man: Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ's recently disgraced and highly powerful former leader. And though he won't be at the head of the party, his role within it is one of the big questions facing the DPJ as it looks toward victory this month.
Ozawa has loomed large in Japanese politics since the end of the Cold War. He took over his father's seat in the Japanese Diet, the country's legislature, in 1969 and became a popular LDP leader in the late 1980s. From early in his career, he was the political godson of Kakuei Tanaka, the legendary leader who refined the LDP's political machine and paved over Japan in the process.
By the early 1990s, Ozawa became disenchanted with the LDP's pork-barrel politics. He started advocating for the "normalization" of Japanese security policy -- a commitment of forces outside Japan, as with Operation Desert Storm. Most of all, he became convinced that the country needed more vigorous democracy, in which parties competed for votes by crafting the best policies. Ozawa gathered a group of loyalists who shared his ideas. Eventually, his faction pulled out of the LDP entirely, toppling its government in 1993 -- the first time since 1955.
Ozawa, though not in the Cabinet, was the key player in the short-lived non-LDP coalition government. (The LDP regained power in 1997.) He supported the fragile coalition from behind the scenes, helping to broker the most important political deals. Additionally, he published Blueprint for a New Japan, a highly influential manifesto, calling for electoral reform and more assertive foreign-affairs and defense policies.
As a fulfillment of his Blueprint, he sought to build a stable and strong opposition party throughout the 1990s. This led to a few misfires. He helped create the New Frontier Party, which contested one general election before dissolving in 1997. Then he supported the Liberal Party, already composed mostly of politicians loyal to him. It briefly joined the LDP in a tumultuous coalition government, but never gained political traction.