Yesterday, the three lawyers appointed by the court to prosecute Ichiro Ozawa under Japan's Committee for the Inquest of the Prosecution system announced they would be appealing the not guilty verdict the Tokyo District Court handed down on April 26. The decision to appeal comes less than 24 hours after the DPJ's Standing Officers Council voted to end the suspension of Ozawa's party privileges and 24 hours before the deadline for the three lawyers had to file an appeal.
Given that the lawyers had two weeks to make this decision, their choice to do so within the same news cycle as the DPJ executive's having made its move on reinstating Ozawa indicates that it is politics, not the law, that is driving this case.
Three major cases come to mind of countries with democratic elections where the courts have been used to prevent a challenger of the system from seizing upon his chance to take power: Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Ichiro Ozawa in Japan.
Elevating Ozawa to the level of the other two may seem perverse. After all, he has never spent a day in jail while the other two have languished in prison for years.
However, the cases are comparable in the use of pliant prosecutors and flimsy charges to effectively short-circuit the democratic process, to the benefit of politicians and corporate managements grown fat and lazy on crony, state-assisted capitalism and patronage.
While the cases of Anwar and Khodhorkovsky have served as reminders of just what kind of states Malaysia and Russia were and are, the judicial houndings of Ozawa and his aides have raised few warning bells worldwide. Indeed, the persecution of Ozawa has some in Washington dancing in the aisles. The 2009 arrest of Okubo Takanori, the beginning of the process that has led to yesterday's decision to retry, not only prevented the installation of a prime minister wishing to redefine the Japan-U.S. relationship as a more equal partnership but one seeking to meet the challenge of a rising China with an extended open hand rather than a closed fist.
The continued court cases against Ozawa and his subordinates also eat away at the support for the DPJ, which many in Washington see as a party too spiky and independent for the smooth operation of the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
However, those craving to see the return to power of a seemingly more U.S.-friendly and purportedly more competent LDP are either ignorant of history or in the pay of the wrong sorts of people. The LDP, as an illegitimate ruling party – which means its continued hold on power was dependent upon the suppression of votes – was a terrible interlocutor for the United States and the world. It was the party of delay, always whining about its inability to make good on its promises until “after the next election” – a plaint that tested the listener’s capacity to reason out, “But wait, after the next election, there will be another election, and after that, yet another…” Given their electoral lock on the country, LDP governments cared little that policy makers, journalists and scholars saw through this “wait until after the next election" canard – and that under its thrall Japan would always underperform and punch below its weight. Under the"serious" and "seasoned" LDP, trade and IPR talks would drag out for decades, the Futenma-to-Henoko move went nowhere and the Self Defense Forces remained marginalized and internationally insignificant.
Some might argue that there are immediate benefits to this decision to retry Ozawa, that hobbling him will smooth the passage of important legislation tackling the national debt emboldening the Noda government to be more aggressive in pushing Japan into negotiations on joining the TPP. Unfortunately, opposition to the government's plans to raise the consumption tax, cut spending and join the TPP negotiations runs across the political spectrum. It is not just Ozawa.
There is the further problem that turmoil in Tokyo has promoted the rise of regional challengers to the main national triumvirate of the DPJ, the LDP and the New Komeito. The most successful and obvious of these is the Ishin no kai of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. These new regional movements are the wild cards now in Japan’s national politics. The old boys and the rare old girls of the bureaucracy and the non-profit foundations probably assuring their counterparts in the world's capitals that these new political forces can be tutored in the ways of behaving themselves on the international stage. However, there are no guarantees of that Hashimoto, Mayor Takashi Kawamura of Nagoya or other regionalists will listen to what their tutors tell them.
The legal persecution of Ozawa has had a corrosive effect on the development of a two-party system, where two legitimate, centrist, responsible parties with largely equal access to national office slug it out over differences in policy. Those who wave off what is happening with a dismissive “Ah, this is just the law finally catching up a grubby old time party hack, nothing new” have agendas of their own, obsfucating the truth being one of them.