In an apparent attempt to win the support of union members for his Liberal Democratic Party in the Upper House election in July, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi joined opposition leaders in attending a May Day rally in Tokyo on Saturday.

Koizumi, who became the first prime minister to attend a May Day event since 1996, said his administration will “humbly listen” to demands from labor groups and create a system to “improve living conditions for the people and workers.”

“Although the Koizumi Cabinet is based on a ruling coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party, the most important thing (for the administration) is to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” Koizumi told some 100,000 members of labor unions affiliated with the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the nation’s biggest labor organization, at the rally in Yoyogi Park.

“Many of the people who have gathered here may want a change of government, but the fact that I became LDP president and prime minister in a sense has the same meaning as a change of government,” Koizumi added.

With his reformist agenda, Koizumi, who has strong popular appeal for his reformist agenda, won a landslide victory in the April 24 LDP presidential election by defeating former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who had been favored by the mainstream of the party.

However, the LDP itself still has a tough task on its hands in the upcoming Upper House election. Koizumi’s surprise participation in the May Day rally is widely seen as part of his campaign to boost support for the LDP among salaried workers and union members.

Only two prime ministers have previously taken part in a May Day event — Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist leader, in 1995 and Hashimoto, who was heading an LDP-Social Democratic Party coalition, in 1996.

The relationship between the government and Rengo has been less than friendly in recent years. Last year, then Labor Minister Takamori Makino failed to attend the rally, the first labor minister to do so since 1984.

Initially, Rengo decided not to invite the prime minister to attend the rally, but it eventually accepted Koizumi’s request to attend on condition that it would not be forced change its anti-LDP slogans.

In fact, Rengo chairman Etsuya Washio maintained his criticism of the LDP-led ruling bloc, saying, “Merely changing (the leader) will not change the fundamental nature of LDP politics. . . . (The new administration) should present concrete policy proposals (to increase jobs for workers).”

Opposition leaders invited to the rally as guest speakers also lashed out at the new prime minister. “Mr. Koizumi has backtracked from his reform pledges,” Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, said.

“We will scrutinize the true nature of the Koizumi government beneath its appearance of reform.”

Social Democratic Party leader Takako Doi criticized Koizumi for his “rightist and hawkish” inclinations, citing his willingness to increase Japan’s defense role and his plan to visit Yasukuni Shrine. Although Koizumi was greeted by scattered applause from union members at the rally, some of the participants expressed their unhappiness with the new prime minister.

Toshimitsu Kubo, a 55-year-old worker at a trucking company, described Koizumi as one of the rare LDP politicians who can raise people’s hope, but added that things will not fundamentally change unless the LDP falls from power.

A 35-year-old woman working at a textile company said, “The question is what he really does. He is trying to create an image that change will take place, but changes are still only happening on the surface.”

Hiroyuki Akagawa, an employee of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., said he welcomes Koizumi’s attempt to eliminate the influence of senior LDP members in his administration. “He may pull the nation out of this rock-bottom condition,” he said, adding, at the same time, that he is worried Koizumi may snatch votes away from labor-backed opposition parties.

This year, Rengo moved forward the date of its May Day rally in Tokyo from the traditional May 1, in deference to complaints from union members that a rally on May 1 would interfere with their plans to take long holidays during the Golden Week vacation period that starts in late April.

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