INVENTION OF THE POLITICIAN IDOL

Koizumi plays public relations game like a pro

by Toshi Maeda

This was the year of the Koizumi craze.

Products such as a Junichiro Koizumi cell phone strap and T-shirts stamped with the prime minister’s face sold as if he were a teen idol.

A collection of photographs of Koizumi hit bookstores nationwide, and in early December he was even chosen as this year’s winner of the “trendy vocabulary award” for pet phrases like “reform without sacred cows” and “pain of reform.”

Eight months into his job, the “weirdo” lawmaker turned prime minister still maintains an extraordinarily high 80 percent public approval rating. This sharply contrasts with the public despair over politics prevailing up to March, when Yoshiro Mori was at the nation’s helm with approval ratings below 10 percent.

Koizumi, who belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party faction led by Mori until April, admits he owes a lot of his success to lessons learned from his predecessor’s failures, including the way the unpopular Mori related to — and missed chances to utilize — the media.

Unlike Mori, who would brush off reporters chasing him around, the silver-maned Koizumi appears before the TV cameras on a daily basis. He comes up with short, snappy phrases and recites them like mantras until they become embedded in the public consciousness.

For example, he repeated “Kokusai hakkou 30 cho-en” (“issuance of government bonds limited to 30 trillion yen a year”) throughout the budget-compilation process this year. Another mantra was “Sanpo ichiryouzon” (“all three parties share the pain”) — in discussing how patients, medical institutions and insurers must each make sacrifices in the reform of the public health insurance system. Finally, in discussing the privatization of public corporations, there was, “Minkan-de dekirukoto-wa, minkan-de” (“Let private firms do what they can.”)

When he is at a loss for an answer, a favorite is “joukyou wo mite” (“I will see how it goes.”) When his reform measures draw criticism from fellow lawmakers, he urges “Kyoshin tankai” (“open-mindedness”). Asked about his intentions before making a trip overseas to meet foreign leaders, it’s “Shizentai de” (“I will behave naturally.”)

His simplicity of language, which some criticize as being unbefitting of a prime minister, may be the key to catching the public’s attention via their TV sets.

TV reporters covering the Prime Minister’s Official Residence acknowledge that Koizumi’s short and punchy comments make for good television and provide convenient sound bites.

Some observers say his biggest achievement so far has been bringing national-level politics into the living room. In addition to his media strategy, Koizumi’s uncommon straightforwardness as a prime minister may have helped him gain the public’s favor.

Koizumi has long insisted that the Constitution, which literally bans Japan from having an army, navy or air force, should be revised to reflect reality.

With the same candidness, he said during a Diet session in October that he would “be at a loss” if asked whether Japan’s support for the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan is clearly consistent with constitutional constraints, openly admitting the ambiguities of the nation’s security policies in relation to the war-renouncing Article 9.

Many lawmakers just chuckled at Koizumi’s reaction, which would never have been the case if Mori had made that remark while in office.

When Aoki Construction Corp. effectively went bankrupt earlier this month, Koizumi framed it this way: “This shows how smoothly the disposal of bad loans is proceeding.” The quip left his aides uneasy about a possible backlash from the public suffering from a protracted economic slump, but neither the media nor the public jumped on him for the comment.

Another major driving force behind Koizumi’s popularity is the “resistance force,” how he has characterized his enemies within his own LDP.

“Anybody opposing my Cabinet’s policy will belong to the resistance force,” Koizumi declared shortly after his inauguration in April, obviously referring to the party’s conservative doyens. Although he did not single out any names in this resistance force, the existence of a common enemy for the public induced many people to side with him as he built his image as the “reformer” fighting the “resistance force.”

During the Upper House election in July, party elders, including those opposed to Koizumi’s reforms, did not hesitate to take advantage of his popularity. They had the prime minister stump nationwide and draped a giant poster of Koizumi — so huge that some jokingly claimed Koizumi looked like a dictator or the leader of a communist regime — on LDP headquarters in Tokyo.

Naturally, the LDP’s old guard welcomed the party’s big win in the election polls and the high public support for the party brought about by the “Koizumi effect.” But what they cannot tolerate is Koizumi’s attempt to break the LDP’s decades-old custom and take the policy initiative by bypassing prior consultations with senior LDP officials.

In a bid to prevent a second Koizumi from emerging in the future, senior party members earlier this month revised the rules of the party’s presidential election and scrapped the “winner-takes-all” system in the counting of votes from local LDP chapters. In the April election, Koizumi swept most of the local votes and scored an upset victory over his main rival, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was widely believed to have broader support among the party’s Diet members.

Political analyst Minoru Morita said one of Koizumi’s achievements this year was successfully pushing the largest opposition force, the Democratic Party of Japan, into confusion by tactfully inviting DPJ members to join his reform drive. Indeed, the DPJ recently developed a serious internal rift over how Japan should commit to the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

Morita also pointed out that Koizumi has strengthened the authority of the central bureaucracy, especially the once powerful Finance Ministry, while effectively weakening the power of the Diet, ruling parties and local governments.

“All he has done works well for the sake of the Koizumi administration, but it may be harmful for the sake of the people of Japan in the long run,” he said.

Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University, noted that Koizumi has sent a strong message this year that the LDP’s “old political decision-making style” has come to an end.

“We have seen dramatic changes this year in terms of how political decisions are made,” he said. “Next year, he will be tested on whether he can maintain this momentum and have his style take root.

“The worst-case scenario for the Japanese people,” he warned, “is that Koizumi’s approval ratings go down and the LDP old guard replaces him, reviving the budget allocation system shackled by the LDP’s vested interests.”

Tanaka predicted that the next major challenge to Koizumi may come after March, when many companies close their books for the 2001 business year and financially troubled firms could go down.

“If he can ride out that period with approval ratings of around 60 percent or higher, he can keep the momentum.”