Photo/IllutrationIchiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, meets voters in Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, in October. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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It could be the last shot for the “shadow shogun.” At the age of 76, Ichiro Ozawa knows that time is not on his side if he is to leave a lasting footprint on the political establishment.

And that means driving the ruling party from power, something he has helped engineer twice before.

As Ozawa prepares to mark a half-century in politics, mostly as a conservative lawmaker who wields immense influence behind the scenes, nothing would give him more joy than to see the Liberal Democratic Party turfed out for a third time.

This is an odd situation, given that he once held one of the party's most powerful posts, secretary-general, before he had a falling-out and started to embrace different ideas that entailed party-hopping and questions about his political integrity.

Ozawa currently heads the opposition Liberal Party, which, with only six Diet members, is hardly a force to be reckoned with. Yet, other opposition party bosses continue to court his advice because of his experience in arranging opposition forces to confront the LDP, which has held power except for two short breaks since its founding in 1955.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party dominates both chambers of the Diet, and opposition forces are fragmented. Yet, Ozawa is confident that the Upper House election scheduled to be held in summer 2019 offers an opportunity for change.

He has fond memories of heading what was then the Democratic Party of Japan in 2007 when an Upper House election was held that led Abe to resign as prime minister during his first stint in the post.

The DPJ ended up winning 60 seats in that election, against 37 for the LDP. The gridlock that resulted as different majorities were in control of the two chambers of the Diet laid the groundwork for the ouster of the LDP from power in 2009.

Other politicians recall how Ozawa in 1993 played a key role in marshaling the forces of eight parties bound by their opposition to the LDP. The coalition government was led by reformist Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa.

On July 5, Ozawa had drinks at a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo with Shoichi Kondo, the election strategy committee chairman for the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

In 1993, Ozawa was an executive of Shinseito (Japan Renewal Party), while Kondo was trying to establish a political career with New Party Sakigake, another coalition member.

Kondo asked Ozawa to the restaurant to sound him out on what the CDP should do to prepare for the Upper House election next year.

Ozawa told him that the CDP had to convince voters that it offered a viable alternative to the LDP. He also urged him to create a larger amalgamation of opposition parties.

Ozawa pointed out that as the leading opposition party, the CDP should take the initiative in coordinating with the other opposition parties so a unified candidate is fielded in all single-seat districts in the Upper House election.

Ozawa also has started warming up to Yukio Edano, the CDP head, even though the two were often at odds when the DPJ was in control of government.

Since the Lower House election held in autumn 2017 when the CDP emerged as the main opposition force in that chamber, Edano and Ozawa have met almost monthly to discuss political strategy. Ozawa has also consulted frequently with Kiyomi Tsujimoto, who chairs the CDP Diet Affairs Committee.

CDP lawmakers who have been cozying up to Ozawa come away with a strong sense of his desire to once again orchestrate a change of government.

Kazuo Shii, head of the Japanese Communist Party, is another politician who holds Ozawa in high regard, having known him since the 1990s.

Although Ozawa is viewed by some opposition lawmakers as an “old school” politician who focuses more on political machinations rather than policy, one veteran lawmaker of the Democratic Party for the People said, “There is no opposition party leader who can afford to ignore what Ozawa has to say.”

Ozawa is especially critical of the LDP under Abe, whose administration he believes has betrayed his long-held goal of having lawmakers, rather than bureaucrats, have the final say on government policy.

Ozawa says the Abe administration has abused its authority. The sale of state-owned land at a sharp discount to a school operator and revelations that the Finance Ministry falsified official documents point to a mind-set whereby officialdom tries to accommodate the prime minister's wishes without Abe having to enunciate an initiative.

This disturbing sense of the way government is run these days is also exacerbated by doubts cast on whether Abe and his aides acted appropriately in the process behind the approval given to the Kake Educational Institution to open a veterinary medicine faculty.

At a July 11 news conference, Ozawa made clear what the opposition must do to bring down the Abe administration.

“In a nutshell, it comes down to what arguments are held by the ruling and opposition parties regarding issues that go to the very foundation of this nation and its people,” he said. “The opposition must come together and act in a serious manner to take on the administration.”