Opponents of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal reform plans have a number of complaints, but the point they tend to harp on about, presumably because it’s the only one the average citizen can appreciate, is the downsizing of post offices in far-flung regions.

It’s easy to sympathize with the little old lady who walks five kilometers to the village post office to send a money order to her grandson in Tokyo for his birthday, only to find it’s closed. But it’s difficult to feel sorry for the owner of that post office, because that is what the people who run the so-called tokutei (special) post offices are — owners. Of the 25,000 POs in Japan, 19,000 are tokutei, which means they belong to the people who run them and have been handed down from father to son since the postal service was created in the Meiji era. These people have a sweet deal. The government not only pays them rent for the use of their property for a government function, they also pay them hefty salaries regardless of the amount of business they do. And they don’t even have to take a civil servant test. In short, tokutei post offices are subsidized inheritances.

Japan Post has been in the red since 1997, and 60% of the budget goes to personnel costs, which includes the owners of tokutei post offices. I say good riddance.

However, it turns out Koizumi has no intention of getting rid of them. Whatever fate was to befall the tokutei post offices in the original reform plan, in the one that eventually faced rejection by the Upper House Koizumi promised to maintain the current network of post offices as is.

So what exactly is it that he plans to reform? Pundits say the main purpose of Koizumi’s privatization plan was to nudge the 340 trillion yen that’s socked away in postal savings accounts onto the market, a proposal that upsets certain Liberal Democratic Party members who, because of vested interests, would no longer have access to these “public investment” funds for pet projects, almost all of which end up in the red. After the war, when the country needed to rebuild, postal savings were useful as a source of capital for needed infrastructure construction. Now it mostly goes toward white elephants. However, Koizumi has also had to compromise on this aspect of reform, and his final proposal regarding postal savings doesn’t really change the current situation.

Koizumi’s postal reform is in reality no reform at all. Still, the Upper House didn’t pass it, thus causing the prime minister to call elections so that the citizens can directly approve or reject his ideas. Consequently, some people are saying that it was Koizumi’s plan all along to call the election just so he could rid the Liberal Democratic Party of all the people who don’t approve of what he’s doing.

Such a theory is bolstered by the tenor of the campaign . If the election were truly a referendum on Koizumi’s postal privatization plan, which is what he claims it is, then what he should do is go before the people and explain those plans clearly. As it is, he’s simply rounding up candidates who support him and who have high profiles. The media, which was as bored by the postal reform plan as the public was, is now paying attention, intrigued by the colorful terminology of combat that’s being used in this campaign. Koizumi’s recruited minions are ” assassins” who will “parachute” into regional districts to take out the “rebel” LDP defectors.

Though the press focused on the sudden recruitment of Livedoor tycoon Takafumi Horie to take on LDP traitor Shizuka Kamei for Koizumi (albeit as an independent), Horie’s candidacy isn’t really much of a turnaround since he will do anything to promote himself. More interesting, and amusing, is the cohort of women who are running on the prime minister’s side and who have pledged themselves to Koizumi’s reforms as if they were religious cultists. “I’ll do anything he asks,” said political science professor Kuniko Inoguchi to the press after she met with the PM, obviously dazzled by his wit and permanent wave. The first thing he should ask her to do is stop dressing like an opera diva in public.

As one anonymous LDP member told AERA last week, this election is “all about wide shows,” those morning news programs that lean toward the sensational. The wide shows didn’t show any interest in the postal reform debate when it was at its peak. Koizumi’s point man, reform minister Heizo Takenaka, possesses as much charisma as a tax return, but now that the fight over postal privatization has changed into a clash of personalities and hairstyles, the wide shows can’t get enough. Last week, Fuji TV’s “Toku Da Ne” presented a lively rundown of Koizumi’s postal reform plan while admitting that it was a bit too late. Even Tokyo Sports, which seems to cover only two things, celebrity scandal and professional wrestling, has recently run articles about the candidates.

Everybody is calling this election “Koizumi’s theater,” which sounds antithetical to democratic principles, but given that the Japanese electorate has become increasingly disillusioned with politics and seems less interested in voting with each successive election, anything to get them to the polls should be looked upon favorably. What’s interesting is that the usual practice of focusing on names and empty platitudes rather than issues has been turned on its head. People who like the idea of reform may actually vote for the LDP, which has traditionally been the enemy of reform. And people who don’t like reform may vote for the colorful characters who favor reform simply because they’re colorful characters. It may not be ideal, but it certainly won’t be boring.

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