Ichiro Ozawa, president of Japan's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has been a behind-the-scenes political player for more than 20 years. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan is losing its grip on power, and Ozawa might be stepping into the premiership after the next general election. At his office in DPJ headquarters in Nagatacho, the heart of Tokyo government, Ozawa spoke with TIME's Michael Elliott and Coco Masters about reforming the economy, the trouble with bureaucrats and U.S.-Japan cooperation. (Read "Ozawa: The Man Who Wants to Save Japan.")
TIME: President Ozawa, you've always had a reputation for 25 years as being a man behind the scenes in Japanese politics. Do you want to be Prime Minister?
OZAWA: I don't say that I really like doing jobs behind the scenes. Rather I'm very much good at, fond of, working at practical things and therefore I don't like to be showy on the stage.
In responding to your question, if I was able to win the general election as the President of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and I am supported by the majority of the voters, then I am ready to deliver my responsibility.
TIME: I think that's a yes. But what do you think is the main concern of the Japanese electorate and how would you address that concern?
OZAWA: Looking back over the past 10 years, the government under the Liberal Democratic Party promoted excessive deregulation in the name of globalization and reforms. If you take a look at the situation in the area of national income, (corporate) managers were able to increase their income by twice to three times, and shareholders' dividends increased by twice that again. But the real income of salaried workers declined by 7% to 8 %. This demonstrates an excessive market economy produced a handful of super-rich people and the income gap widened. We have to rectify the disparities in the distribution of income.
Now Japan's economy has been hard hit by this financial crisis. Under these circumstances, Japan's traditional safety net the lifetime employment system was forced to be changed to a great extent. As a result of policies particularly pursued by the Koizumi administration, this employment system has completely collapsed. As a result we are witnessing a large growth in unemployed people, which creates a lot of concern.
TIME: Is the answer to go back to the traditional Japanese conception of lifelong employment, or is it to create a genuine social safety net with a reformed pension system and reformed medical care system?
OZAWA: Well, we have no intention of going back to the traditional system. We have to incorporate free-market competition into the lifetime employment system. But we need to keep the good aspects and benefits of that old system so that we can mix them together.
TIME: We've seen what U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has done in his first 100 days. If the DPJ takes power in the next general election, what can we expect?
OZAWA: We have already come up with a timetable for actions to be taken after we take power. But the general election has been delayed again and again and again, and so we have not disclosed our timetable yet. As for specific issues for example pension reforms and medical insurance reforms and employment issues of course we have to deal with those. However, more important is that we have to make fundamental reform in the current government system, in which the government is led primarily by the bureaucracy. We have to replace this with a system in which the politicians take the lead to formulate the policies, make decisions on policies and execute those policies. The current government is totally dependent on and controlled by the bureaucracy. For that very reason, in difficult times like these, even when politicians in the ruling camp want to make changes, they have nothing to do.