Japan's 'shadow shogun' rises again

TOKYO - Ichiro Ozawa, who Thursday was cleared of a funding scandal, is a veteran election strategist who stands as a byword for money politics in Japan, but maintains a tight grip on backroom power.

Over four decades, Ozawa has earned the nicknames "The Destroyer" and "Shadow Shogun" for his record of creating and wrecking political alliances and striking behind-the-scenes deals that advance his agenda.

His formidable war chest and wide-ranging connections have enabled him to build a significant powerbase in parliament, with a large number of lawmakers owing tribute because of his role in securing their seats.

Ozawa, 69, led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) from 2006 to early 2009, when the indictment of an aide - the start of the scandal that played out Thursday - forced him to stand down, even as the premiership was within reach.

The general election a few months later swept the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party from power and saw Ozawa's former lieutenant Yukio Hatoyama installed as prime minister with a commanding DPJ majority.

The party's success was in no small part brought about by the election of a tight-knit group of mainly younger party members loyal to Ozawa.

In Japan's tribal politics, this faction, which makes up around a third of the sitting DPJ, has enormous power to upend government programmes, and frequently seeks to mold policies.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who has pinned his premiership to a divisive bid to double sales tax as a way to partially plug a gaping budgetary hole, is now faced with the prospect of more hostility from the faction over the plan.

Ozawa's proxies have repeatedly spoken out against the hike, issuing veiled warnings over the need for the DPJ to stand behind its election pledges to cut budgetary fat instead of raising taxes.

Like many Japanese lawmakers, Ozawa was born into a political family, as the son of a former LDP construction minister.

A graduate of private Keio University, Ozawa first entered parliament in 1969 at the age of 27, inheriting a seat from his late father.

He quickly climbed through the LDP ranks as a protege of Kakuei Tanaka, a charismatic self-made prime minister tainted by corruption.

He made waves in 1993 with his bestseller "Blueprint for a New Japan", a conservative work in which he called for a military on a par with Japan's economic might and for a two-party political system.

He parted company with the LDP that year to form a new party that joined forces with other political groups to enjoy a short stint in a coalition government.

Years in the opposition wilderness led to another political realignment, when Ozawa helped create the present-day DPJ, a broad church that can occasionally appear united chiefly by a desire not to be the LDP.

Despite - or maybe because of - his political might, Ozawa is an unpopular figure among the Japanese public, many of whom see him as obsessed with playing politics, rather than executing policies.

But with a DPJ leadership battle looming this autumn, Thursday's court victory could see him taking another tilt at leadership.

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