Koizumi era one of change, tension

by Hiroko Nakata

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who pledged to “destroy” his own Liberal Democratic Party when he became its president five years ago, will probably be remembered for putting in place much-needed structural reforms.

But as Koizumi marks his fifth year in office Wednesday, many observers say his administration will also be remembered for souring Japan’s relations with other parts of Asia and for chipping away at the middle class.

As of April 5, Koizumi already became the nation’s third-longest-serving postwar prime minister, trailing two others who also left a mark — Eisaku Sato and Shigeru Yoshida.

“More than 50 years after the war, Koizumi is the . . . first prime minister who takes responsibility for what he pledges to the public,” said Hidekazu Kawai, a professor of comparative politics at Chubu University.

One of the highlights of Koizumi’s stint thus far was the LDP’s landslide victory in last September’s House of Representatives election, which gave him a broad mandate to privatize the nation’s postal system — something he had sought to do for years.

Throughout his term, Koizumi has promoted administrative reforms under the slogan “No growth without reform.”

He worked to end traditional pork-barrel politics — which lavished money on public works projects to shore up the economy — curbed the issuance of government bonds and pushed banks to get rid of their mountain of nonperforming loans.

But the jury is still out on what the changes have actually achieved. Some critics argue they have widened the gap between rich and poor.

Meanwhile, Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine have strained ties between Japan and China and South Korea.

“Japan’s position in Asia has never been worse,” Kawai said.

In the latest row, Tokyo and Seoul managed Saturday to defuse a tense maritime standoff over islets in the Sea of Japan that are controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan. In a compromise, Japan dropped plans to survey the nearby seabed and South Korea agreed to delay efforts to register underwater features in the area under Korean names.

On Tuesday, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun issued a special message on bilateral relations in which he said “Dokdo is a touchstone of Japan’s recognition of its past history,” together with other issues such as Japanese leaders’ visits to Yasukuni.

“As long as Japan continues to glorify its past wrongs and claim rights based on such history, friendly relations between Korea and Japan cannot be established properly,” he said.

Observers also say Koizumi has become a lame duck after announcing he will step down in September, when his term as LDP chief expires. Analysts say the scheduled end of the current Diet session on June 18 will mark the start of the race to succeed him.

It is unclear whether the public will continue to support the LDP after his departure.

A narrow victory Sunday by the Democratic Party of Japan candidate in a Lower House by-election in Chiba Prefecture has given a boost to its newly elected chief, Ichiro Ozawa, and, say some observers, provides a hint of a rougher road ahead for the ruling party in the Upper House election slated for this summer.