Ozawa: The Man Who Wants to Save Japan

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Photograph for TIME by Jun Takagi

Ichiro Ozawa

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Others are not so sure. Gerald Curtis, professor of politics at Columbia University, who has studied and written about Japan for many years, recognizes that the DPJ wants to strengthen the safety net, but wonders if it has the determination to launch the sort of stimulus package that Barack Obama got through the U.S. Congress in a matter of weeks. Ozawa can come across as all politics, "his own Karl Rove," as Curtis puts it, rather than one who thinks through policies carefully.

But as Prime Minister, he will have to do just that. In the past, there have been times when Ozawa's determination for Japan to be a normal country with a sense of its own interests seemed likely to make him an awkward partner for the U.S. For example, Ozawa recently suggested that under a DPJ-led government the presence of the Seventh Fleet, based at Yokosuka, would be "enough" U.S. military for East Asia — a remark that implied that all other U.S. bases in Japan should be closed. While he says that the relationship with the U.S. is "the most important that Japan has," Ozawa puts some daylight between himself and Washington. He told TIME: "When it comes to an exercise of military power which will be implemented or carried out by the U.S. alone, then Japan is not able to go along with the U.S. But if the international dispute settlement is to be arranged within the United Nations framework, with the cooperation of the international community, then ... Japan should be proactive in rendering support as much as possible."

Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Ozawa's "Captain Ahab – like quest" to destroy the LDP has at times led him to adopt an anti-U.S. tone, causing some collateral damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance. But every Japanese leader understands the reality of life. Should he become Prime Minister, Ozawa's determination to hold on to power, says Green, "will lead him to pursue a strong alliance with Washington."

Getting Out of a Funk

Right now, the key challenges facing Japan are domestic. The Japanese, in a funk since the bubble burst, know that things cannot go on like they have. "Japanese people wish for a fundamental change, but there's no one to vote for," says Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University in Tokyo. Koll says that "the real question is whether politics can be sexy again for the younger generation — something that you actually want to be involved with, not only because it affects your life but affects your future."

And that gets to the heart of it. The question is not simply whether someone who is as deeply steeped in Japanese political culture as Ozawa — who at times seems as motivated by replacing the LDP as he is by a clear analysis of where Japan should be headed — can be a sexy agent of change. It is whether Japan really wants to go through the wrenching transformation of its economy and society that the new century seems to demand.

To be sure, Japan has the capacity to renew itself. It has done so twice in modern times, first after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, when a traditional, closed society modernized so thoroughly that by 1905 it was able to defeat a major European power, Russia, in war; and again after 1945, when a new economy was built from the ashes.

But there is in Japan always a nostalgia for a supposedly simpler past rather than an unpredictable future. In Tokyo's Ota Memorial Museum of Art this month there is an exquisite exhibition of ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Yoshu Chikanobu, displaying Japan during the Meiji period when Western habits — European music and military uniforms, guns, crinolines — were beginning to replace the old ways.

The presentation of the modern within the classical confines of ukiyo-e prints is oddly unsettling, as if the artist could not quite come to terms with the new world, and perhaps didn't want to. In one print, for example, a woman in traditional kimono and lacquered hair watches wistfully as a young girl, hair flying behind her, joyfully rides a bicycle.

Will Japan get on its bike and pedal off to meet the future with confidence? There are many — and not just in Japan — who would dearly love to know the answer.

With reporting by Yuki Oda/Tokyo

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