Japan's top opposition party has a new leader - and he is a familiar face to those in the governing coalition.

Democratic Party lawmakers on Friday afternoon overwhelmingly chose veteran politician Ichiro Ozawa as their fifth leader in five years.

Ozawa outpolled a two-time party president, Naoto Kan, by 119 - 72. After being declared the winner, Ozawa immediately expressed his desire to improve relations with Japan's neighbors.

Ozawa says the U.S.-Japan alliance is second to none but Japan has a long history with both China and Korea and needs to have good relations with them as well.

During Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's five years in power, relations with Beijing have plunged to their lowest point in decades.

Ozawa is a former secretary general of the Liberal

Democratic Party, which has been at the helm of nearly all post-war Japanese governments. But Ozawa, who is 63, left the L.D.P. 13 years ago. He joined the Democrats less than three years ago when the D.P.J. absorbed the party he had founded.

Friday's election was called after the party's leader, Seiji Maehara, quit last week to take responsibility for a bungled D.P.J. political attack on a senior L.D.P. lawmaker that was based on a fabricated e-mail.

Ozawa, known for his tough and sometimes aggressive manner, now has the arduous task of preparing the major opposition party to challenge the L.D.P.

After five years in office, Prime Minister Koizumi has indicated he will step down in September, which would clear the way for national elections.