Tani Ryoko announced her resignation from competitive judo on Friday, leaving behind a sport that had made her wealthy, famous and one of Japan's most beloved athletes. She is without a doubt made her country's most successful international competitor, with a career record of two Olympic gold medals, two silvers and a bronze and 7 world championships.
As she said her goodby to judo, at least as a professional athlete, television networks showed just her face. They did not pull back to show who was sitting next to her as she announced her retirement.
It was left to the morning papers to reveal that as she gave her farewell, to her right sat a grim Ozawa Ichiro.
"What was he doing there?"
Ozawa ostensibly had a reason to be present at the resignation ceremony. It was he who had personally wooed Tani, convincing her to become an at-large party candidate for the Democratic Party of Japan for the election. It was he who pushed her to the forefront of the July 2010 House of Councillors election campaign, making her one of the party's main "faces." It was for his party leadership campaign that she had worked so tirelessly, traveling seemingly everywhere with him -- all of which kept her from the dojo, where she needed the practice time. It was because of and for him that she simply was no longer capable of putting in the hours necessary to be a world-class athlete -- not to mention the mother of two very young children.
Nevertheless, Ozawa's presence, seated directly beside Tani on dais, still resonates oddly. Tani Ryokyo is an adult. When she accepted the invitation to run for the office, she had the responsibility to herself and to the nation to have know that she was making a major commitment -- one that would involve sacrificing something. That she did not have a clue about this reality was evident -- her comments that she intended to represent Japan at the 2012 Games in London earned her a flood of scorn from the members of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
Ozawa's presence at her farewell press conference made it seem in some senses that he was taking responsibility for her having to leave the world of judo behind, when the decision and the responsibility should have been hers.
The picture jars in another way as well. When Ozawa ran for the leadership of the DPJ against Kan Naoto, he promised that if he lost he would fade away and become a common foot soldier for the party. At a reception after his defeat, he told a crowd of his supporters that "Mr. Kan told me I should be quiet, but I went ahead and made a lot of noise. Now I am going to be quiet." In the interim, the Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of the Prosecution decided that Ozawa should be indicted for crimes linked to accounting irregularities at his Rikuzankai political funding organization.
Given these promises it was hardly wise, for his political future and for Tani's, for him to show up at a press conference, sit on the dais, then push reporters away wanting to ask him questions about his current predicament -- especially on the very day his lawyers had filed a lawsuit suit against the prosecution for exceeding its mandate. His hasty exit from the press conference after some brief laudatory comments for Tani, insisting he had to go as "he had his public duties to attend to" (komu no tame), was just more fodder for an unfriendly press corps.
Whatever his intentions, the appearance of Ozawa at Tani's side was not going to be portrayed as an expression of remorse for having robbed Japan of its greatest international sportswoman. Instead, it would be read as though he was asserting that he had taken over Tani's life. His looming presence reinforced an impression -- one that the press loves to foster -- that Tani is not so much a member of the DPJ as a member of the Ozawa Group and that he was there because she was his.
Not exactly the attitude or image of a common foot soldier, this.
Of course, no one expected Ozawa to fade into the background, becoming a simple member of the Diet of no special standing, even though he holds no official title (he flatly rejected the title of Senior Advisor to the party when it was offered to him). He continues to enjoy the loyalty and support of members like Tani whom he enticed into dropping their careers in favor becoming Diet legislators.
Nevertheless, the press presents the image that he owes it to the party -- particularly the members of the government who have been tying themselves in knots trying to defend his not resigning or being expelled from the DPJ, not appearing to give testimony sworn or unsworn about himself in the Diet, not even appearing before the toothless Diet Ethics Committee -- to stay in complete seclusion (actually, they believe he owes it to the nation to resign from the Diet). His popping out of the background to appear at one of the most important sports announcements imaginable just feeds the appetite of the newspapers.
That he did not restrain himself from appearing at the press conference is due also to the fact he has some 150 members in his Group -- 150 Tanis, if you will -- at his disposal. His loss in the leadership race and his imminent indictment have shaken the loyalty of some of the members of his group. However, most are likely still loyal to the man -- though not perhaps as visibly and as seemingly deeply as Tani is. Ozawa still can use the possibility he might leave the party together with his followers -- or the threat he might join forces with the Hatoyama Group to form a huge anti-mainstream bloc in the party -- to prevent the party leadership from dealing with him as they would any other common party foot soldier with huge political funding problems.
So though he has sworn he would become unobtrusive, Ozawa remains in the picture.