National / Politics

Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan's favorite candidate for next leader, says country needs big changes, and fast

by Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro

Bloomberg

The public’s top pick to become the next prime minister says the country is not ready for the scale of change he thinks it needs.

Shinjiro Koizumi, the 38-year-old son of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, consistently leads polls asking who should succeed long-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As the most prominent member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s new guard, he wants quick reforms to manage the country’s rapidly aging population.

“If you look at Japan now, people don’t want to change much,” Koizumi said in an interview at his office in Tokyo on Wednesday.

“They don’t have big dreams, but they don’t have a sense of crisis either,” he added. “But it’s no good for this country to stay as it is. What this country needs more than anything is change. Not just change, but rapid change.”

Even though the younger Koizumi has never held a Cabinet post and limits his media exposure, he is seen by many as the future of the ruling party due to his charisma, clean image and a resemblance to his father, who enjoyed immense popularity during most of his five-year run in office and was known for his willingness to shake up the stodgy LDP.

But that doesn’t mean the public is completely on board with his agenda yet, Koizumi said.

Koizumi heads an LDP panel on social security, which last month published a “vision” for reforms to tackle what Abe has called the national crisis of Japan’s demographics. The population is set to slump by almost a third by 2060, by which time about 40 percent of Japanese will be 65 or over, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

In a bid to rein in the ballooning debt fueled by the developed world’s fastest aging population, Abe’s government is set to raise the sales tax to 10 percent in October from the current 8 percent. Koizumi declined to comment on whether he agreed with the plan, saying only: “It has been decided.”

Rather than calling for higher taxes or lower payouts in its report, Koizumi’s panel urged a re-evaluation of the concept of the working-age population. Older people should be encouraged to stay in the labor force beyond the traditional retirement ages of 60 to 65, becoming contributors to the social security system, rather than burdens on it, the report says.

“We have to correct that huge imbalance between those who are supporting social security and those who are being supported by it,” Koizumi said. Specific measures should include changing a tax system that gives precedence to housewives over working women, and offering health-maintenance incentives.

Koizumi speaks English fluently, which is rare in Japan’s political world. He earned a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University, and served as a secretary to his father before taking over his Diet seat in 2009 in the port city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

A poll by Jiji Press in March found Koizumi was the most popular choice to succeed Abe, with 24.4 percent of respondents opting for him. In second place was former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba at 18.9 percent.

“My field of vision has always been international, rather than domestic,” he said. “With the falling population, the domestic market is shrinking. When I was head of the party’s agriculture panel, I said Japan’s farmers shouldn’t look at the 100 million-strong internal market, but must sell to the 10 billion-strong global market.”

The need to expand export markets was why he supported Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal at a time when it was anathema to many lawmakers in the LDP, which has strong ties to farming groups opposed to opening the nation’s agricultural markets to imports.

“We were a tiny minority in the party. Can you imagine how much we were criticized?” he said. “But we can’t make do just with our own shrinking market, we need to face up to the world.”

After President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP talks soon after his inauguration, the 11 other members including Japan went ahead without the U.S. to forge a successor deal.

Despite that strong public support and four consecutive election victories, Koizumi is seen as too young for the top job by Japanese standards. Abe was queried about his youth when he embarked on his first stint as prime minister at age 52.

Koizumi’s rivals to succeed Abe are now mostly in their sixties. And it may not yet be over for Abe, whose current term ends in September 2021. Some in his party have called for a change in the rules to allow him to run for a fourth consecutive term, though polls show voters oppose the idea.