Diet member Shinjiro Koizumi faced a dilemma when a group of farmers angry over the government’s trade policy and aware of his dislike of tomatoes handed him a bag of them to try.
“Actually, I don’t like raw tomatoes but I’m trying to overcome this,” said the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the meeting in the city of Kasai, Hyogo Prefecture. “But I’ll try them later, and let you know what I think.” For the farmers present it was an important moment of honesty.
Getting the agricultural community on board is the first big political test for the 34 year-old who has spent most of his six years as a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker in low-key roles, focused on recovery work after the 2011 tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan. Now he is being mooted as a potential future leader.
His new task puts him at the center of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms and pits him against a powerful, unhappy voting bloc. Shinjiro Koizumi heads the LDP’s agriculture panel seeking to sell Japan’s participation in a Pacific trade pact that will open up the long-protected and cherished agricultural sector to greater competition.
His tour of Japan’s regions — which has drawn scrums of media cameras and cheering schoolgirls — may be critical in securing the vote of farmers in next summer’s Upper House election. Abe’s ruling coalition has a majority in both houses but his popularity has slipped over his efforts to expand the role of the military in the face of large public protests.
It is going to be a tough sell. And it is not just the farmers Koizumi needs to manage.
“Shinjiro hasn’t yet experienced a setback as a lawmaker. But there’s a lot of jealously in political circles and people will try to spread rumors about him” when he rises in the party, said Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst in Tokyo. While he is popular, Morita said, Koizumi needs to step out of his father’s shadow.
Koizumi was elected to Junichiro’s constituency in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, the home port for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, following his father’s retirement from politics in 2009. He is just one in a long line of lawmakers in Japan heralding from a political dynasty: Abe is the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister, while Finance Minister Taro Aso’s grandfather was also a prime minister.
Kenichi Tokoi, a freelance journalist who has written a book about the younger Koizumi, said the bond between father and son is very strong.
Junichiro Koizumi swept to the top of the party and the prime ministership in 2001 by appealing directly to voters rather than the traditional route of painstaking back-room deals with the party’s establishment.
A maverick with flowing locks and a penchant for Elvis Presley and Richard Wagner, he pushed for “reform with no sacred cows” and got the ball rolling on the privatization of the postal service. Having served more than five years as party leader, a long time by Japanese standards, he called and won a snap election in 2005 and handed over the following year to Abe, who lasted only 12 months in his first stint in office.
Shinjiro Koizumi has been more cautious. On nuclear policy, his father has called for Japan to turn off its reactors immediately, while he favors a more gradual phase-out.
Still, he is not afraid to go against the grain. He did not cheer out loud along with the rest of the LDP lawmakers gathered last November as Abe called a snap election, and told a local newspaper in September that the party had contributed to a lack of public understanding of Abe’s drive to boost the role of the military.
“Shinjiro keeps it real, and studies very hard,” LDP heavyweight and regional revival minister Shigeru Ishiba said in a speech two years ago. “He doesn’t rest on his laurels, and is constantly looking to improve himself. I hope he’ll become prime minister one day.”
Koizumi plays down the hype. The Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported he told an audience in Tokyo in September he was not aiming to become prime minister, but “a politician that people want to become prime minister.” He cites John F. Kennedy as his hero. His office declined an interview request.
“He’s young and has a lot of time. I hope he can expand his horizons through a range of experiences,” said Keiichiro Tachibana, one of four new LDP lawmakers elected at the same time as Shinjiro Koizumi in 2009. “It’s important for him to understand agriculture so he can see all aspects of Japan. After that, work in diplomacy and finance and become a great prime minister.”
He has time to learn the ropes. Abe was endorsed again as party leader in September, putting him on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader in more than four decades.
Still, he has taken some hits as he seeks to make Japan more competitive. The government on Wednesday announced policies to help farmers cope with lower prices for their produce when the Trans-Pacific Partnership takes effect. The role of Koizumi’s team was to make recommendations.
In Japan, a single farmer can have the voting power of several city dwellers — an imbalance stemming from shrinking rural populations that has been little rectified through redrawing of constituencies. That is even as agriculture, forestry and farming only account for 1.2 percent of gross domestic product.
The nation’s biggest agricultural body is a traditional, albeit fading, support base for the LDP. Backing for Abe’s Cabinet among farmers fell to 18 percent in a poll last month by Japan Agriculture News.
Abe will be hoping the Koizumi mystique helps. Shinjiro’s appeal could be seen from the crowd awaiting him when he stepped off the bullet train at Shin Kobe station to start his tour in western Japan. The farmers, he told reporters, would be a different prospect.
“It’s going to be all a young squirt like me can do to face up to the suffering and resolve of the farmer,” he said. “I’m already sweating,” he laughed. “I’ll try as hard as I can and I hope I can be sweating in a good way by the end.”