National / Politics

From paternity leave to the environment, Koizumi's words and actions now under more intense spotlight

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Newly appointed Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, the third-youngest Cabinet minister in the postwar era, has been tapped by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his youth and popularity with the media and the public.

The 38-year-old son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the younger Koizumi has often been highlighted as a future prime ministerial candidate.

But as he takes up his new post, observers are keen to see whether he will break the traditional customs he has criticized — with their initial attention on whether he will take paternity leave to help raise his first child, expected early next year.

While Koizumi’s youth, looks, sometimes populist rhetoric and media presence win him many admirers, critics note these are different qualities to those needed to govern and get things done as a Cabinet minister.

The focus among politicians and media pundits in recent days was on whether Koizumi — who announced his marriage to TV personality Christel Takigawa, 41, last month along with news of her pregnancy — will take paternity leave, which many felt would make serving in a Cabinet position difficult.

Koizumi has become environment minister at a time when domestic and international concern over environmental issues such as climate change, global warming, marine plastic litter and saving the world’s oceans is stronger than ever.

On Sept. 23, world leaders are set to gather in New York for a summit called by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has asked governments to present concrete, realistic national plans with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 45 percent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.

There is also growing international debate about creating ocean sanctuaries worldwide to preserve marine biodiversity and curb overfishing, plastic contamination and deep-sea mining. These issues will require responses, and policy proposals, from Koizumi and his ministry.

In May, Koizumi returned to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, where he worked as a researcher in 2007, and spoke about his policy efforts and the challenges Japan faces — starting with the population decline and its impact on the future of Japanese agriculture and the labor market.

Koizumi, who has a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University, is well-known among America’s so-called Japan hands: Washington and New York-based think tank and academic experts on Japan who advise U.S. presidential administrations, and who have much influence in shaping Washington’s policy toward U.S.-Japan defense and trade relations.

At CSIS, Koizumi said the future would bring a new division between jobs done by humans and those done by robots. He also called for more job opportunities for women, skilled foreign workers and the elderly, especially in a society where predictions are that the number of people over the age of 100 will greatly increase. “If we are to maintain our postwar tradition of lifetime employment and other social systems, Japan will neither prosper nor survive,” he said.

Such policy proposals are welcomed by many different sectors of society. But with a new wife and a baby on the way, Koizumi now finds himself under scrutiny as to whether he will walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, on the parental leave issue for which he has indicated support.

Doing so would show he’s committed to changing attitudes about men taking parental leave even at the expense of their immediate careers. Not doing so could invite criticism he’s hypocritical, and dent his popularity. Opposition politicians are also focused on Koizumi’s decision, and have their own suggestions on what he should do.

“I want Koizumi to tell the LDP and Keidanren that unless all workers get 100 percent of their paternity leave payments, he will not take paternity leave,” said Kenta Izumi of the Democratic Party for the People at a Monday news conference in Tokyo.

Some critics are also watching whether Koizumi will be able to move policies forward as a minister, as it requires cooperation and often compromise — which means more internal politics within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Since winning his first election in 2009, Koizumi’s most prominent position in the government has been as parliamentary vice minister in charge of Tohoku’s recovery. He has also served as head of the LDP’s agriculture division, and was appointed as head of its health, labor and welfare division.

But he won’t get very far in the LDP unless he shows party elders that even though he might enjoy being seen as a lone wolf, he can run with the pack, according to journalist Shinichiro Suda.

“Within the LDP, there are those who have fixed their gaze on Koizumi. It’s easy to stand out and become explosively popular with the public if you adopt a stance of being an opposition party within your own party, and saying and doing whatever you want,” Suda said on a radio program Tuesday about the Cabinet reshuffle.

“But this won’t lead to becoming prime minister. In the political world, they talk about sweating it out. This doesn’t mean working so hard as to work up a sweat, but working your utmost to realize policies decided on by the party — regardless of whether they match your own views or violate your own policies. To date, Koizumi hasn’t done this at all,” Suda said.