Populist, unambiguous Koizumi tough act to follow


The Associated Press

Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, is one of the country’s most popular politicians. His problem is that the one before him, Junichiro Koizumi, is even more popular.

With vague policy goals and a sober demeanor, Abe heralds a dramatic break from the flamboyant Koizumi, a leader renowned as much for his silver mop top and Elvis-worship as for the reforms that signaled the arrival of a new generation in power.

The question now facing the 52-year-old Abe, who was elected Tuesday by the Diet, is whether the clean-cut conservative has the clout and charisma to step out of Koizumi’s long shadow.

“He can grow his hair to his shoulders and swing his hips to Elvis songs. He cannot be another Koizumi,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University. “He cannot compete with Koizumi on matters of style. He has to push something in the way of substance. And frankly, at the moment, it’s very hard to see where the substance is.”

Both leaders since youth have been groomed for power by families studded with prominent politicians. Both studied overseas, and both favor economic reform and a higher international profile for Japanese diplomacy. They are political allies; Koizumi made Abe as his chief Cabinet secretary and heir apparent.

But that’s where many of the similarities end.

Perhaps Abe’s biggest vulnerability is expected to be an inability to strong-arm his own party into supporting his agenda. When Koizumi ran for prime minister five years ago, he was so popular that people tore down his campaign posters as mementos. His approval rating went as high as 84 percent shortly after winning. He was so popular that few in the party dared challenge him as he set out to shake up politics and the economy.

Abe is far from colorless. He has been voted Japan’s Best Dresser, is known for his Italian gelato addiction and recently hammed up his archery skills on a TV comedy show.

His fondness for his dachshund Roy is cited as proof of his “soft side.”

But all that pales in comparison with Koizumi. a prime minister who has waltzed with Richard Gere, toured Graceland mansion at the elbow of U.S. President George W. Bush, and — on the more serious side — transformed deeply held mind-sets.

He defied waves of criticism with regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine. He has said Japan’s invasion of Asia in the early 20th century was wrong, but has needled Japan’s neighbors by pushing for his country, deeply pacifist since its devastation in World War II, to raise its military profile.

The biggest economic challenge he took on was privatizing the postal system, a giant institution that deals in everything from postage stamps to pensions.

Abe, by contrast, has been an enigma. Even though he has worshipped at the contentious Yasukuni Shrine in the past, he refuses to say whether he will go there as prime minister. When it comes to the war, Abe steers clear of calling Japan’s actions unjust and has questioned whether Japan needs to keep apologizing, saying such judgments are best left to historians.

He supports revisionist history textbooks that teachstudents to take pride in their nation rather than focus on Japanese atrocities and aggression.

He supports Japan’s alliance with the United States.

He pledges to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution and has mused openly about whether it would allow Tokyo to make pre-emptive military strikes.

But many Japanese question his leadership skills.

“We cannot suppress our anxiety about his ability,” the Asahi Shimbun commented. “The trend is apparent in his ‘ambiguous strategy’ of avoiding speaking clearly on controversial problems.”

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