Some feted him as the “prince” of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Others likened his youth and charm to that of a “genius child actor.” The public hoped he would be next in line for prime ministership.
But today, it seems Shinjiro Koizumi is none of these things — at least not to the extent he was just two summers ago when he was tapped to serve as the nation’s environment minister, his current post.
The scion of a blue-blood political dynasty is now undergoing something of a transformation in his public persona: Over the past two years, the one-time charismatic star has increasingly found himself reduced to the role of laughingstock on social media where memes keep popping up that target his rhetoric, which many say tends to be style over substance. And with his occasional penchant for enigmatic speeches, some have seen a hint of a bard-like quality, consequently jokingly calling him a wannabe poet on platforms such as Twitter.
His newfound online reputation aside, polls also show that the 40-year-old is no longer the public’s top pick for Japan’s next prime minister, further denting his already remote prospects in the LDP leadership election slated for September — for which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has expressed a willingness to run. As Koizumi’s popularity among the public has been thrown into doubt, so has his ability to guide the LDP through a general election — which must be held by autumn — as the party’s face, with his chances as a post-Suga candidate further slipping away.
One-liners gone wrong
Koizumi’s trial by fire began with his appointment as environment minister in September 2019.
Up until then, the Columbia University-educated Kanagawa native — a son of hugely popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — had enjoyed something of a rock star status, owing in no small part to his family pedigree, good looks and occasional outspokenness, which had seen him take a swipe at the previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over various scandals.
Surveys had repeatedly shown him to be the top politician the public wanted to see as the next prime minister, his popularity even sometimes besting that of Abe, the then-sitting leader whose grip on power was thought to be one of the strongest in post-war Japan.
But after his foray into the Cabinet, Koizumi’s penchant for populist catchphrases, a trait he no doubt inherited from his own father, and his unorthodox rhetoric started turning against him.
“Just like his father, Koizumi became popular with his use of one-liners that dumbed down politics. But as minister, his job became just too complicated to be summarized in a few words,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.
Social media lit up with amusement soon after he assumed the post when he — while speaking at a United Nations-hosted climate summit — enthused in English about how he thought Japan’s fight against climate change should be made “sexy.”
Ever since, Koizumi’s actions have continued to be picked apart, particularly on the internet, for utterances that have a whiff of frivolity or go no further than just stating the obvious.
One of the main characteristics of his speech is the use of repetition.
In response to an opposition lawmaker’s question at a Diet committee meeting, Koizumi attempted to express his regret at having skipped a coronavirus task force meeting to attend a New Year’s party thrown by supporters in his constituency: “I am sorry, and I realize this is one of my problems, but even as I say I’m sorry, I don’t look sorry, which I’m sorry about.” Utterances like this have inspired many on social media to create what they call the “Koizumi Syntax,” where they use Koizumi-esque phrases to come up with an array of humorously empty sentences.
The impression of shallowness took on a new level of notoriety earlier this year when he explained in a TV interview how Japan’s ambitious goal of slashing its greenhouse gas emissions 46% by 2030 from 2013 levels had come about.
“The number ‘46’ just came to my mind, vaguely. The silhouette of it, I mean,” he said during an interview with TBS television, leaving social media aghast at the lack of logic.
Koizumi later told a news conference that his remark from the interview had been taken out of context. Reports also said he had taken a leading role in persuading Suga to adopt the bold target, going so far as to propose an even higher 50% cut as he negotiated with the economy ministry, which wanted a more conservative goal.
This example of resourcefulness, however, ended up being largely overshadowed by his poor messaging, Uchiyama said.
“What he said about the number 46 ‘vaguely’ coming into shape in his mind only entrenched the public in their view that he is all talk,” he said.
“The outcome would’ve been different had he managed to communicate his accomplishment in a way that made it sound like he was the one who did all the behind-the-scenes legwork to convince the prime minister.”
It’s not that Koizumi is entirely unaware of the importance of good communication. Taking advantage of his language skills, he recently launched an English-only Twitter account where he promotes his activities as environment minister and sometimes enthuses about baseball star Shohei Ohtani.
That Koizumi’s leadership abilities have largely eluded the public’s attention, however, is evident in recent opinion polls.
Multiple media surveys asking voters who they think should become Japan’s next prime minister have shown that Koizumi is now being outshone by front-runners such as COVID-19 vaccine rollout minister Taro Kono and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba. A poll conducted by Jiji Press last week, for one, found Koizumi ranking third place at 8.8%, compared with support of 14.9% and 14.5% for Ishiba and Kono, respectively.
Another sign of Koizumi’s waning appeal with voters came to a head earlier this month when he was deployed to speak alongside five LDP-backed candidates on the stump ahead of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The fact he was asked to speak for just five candidates is a stark contrast to his former reputation as one of the LDP’s most popular guest speakers for candidates.
What’s worse, out of the five, only one successfully won a seat — a rather dismal rate that called into question Koizumi’s ability to sway an electorate. Meanwhile, Abe was asked to root for at least 10 candidates on the campaign trail — of those, eight emerged victorious, reinforcing the narrative that the former prime minister still remains powerful.
Voters may have been left disenchanted by Koizumi’s series of offbeat comments, but his diminishing popularity may also have to do with the almost opposite perception that he is, in fact, not behaving as enough of a maverick, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political psychology professor of Reitaku University in Chiba Prefecture.
Before his appointment as the environment minister, Koizumi had a bit of a provocative side. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, he wouldn’t balk at criticizing Abe over his cronyism scandals — a tactic that garnered him support among voters jaded by years of Abe-led politics.
“But since being recruited as a member of the Cabinet, he has had little room to direct that kind of outspoken and trenchant criticism at an administration he himself is part of. He lost his edge, so to speak,” Kawakami said.
“I think voters are now kind of resigned to the understanding that Koizumi will for now drive safely, be a good boy and do what is expected of him as the environment minister, so that he can make a comeback to the spotlight when the right moment comes.”
‘More of a celebrity’
COVID-19 also took some shine off Koizumi, Kawakami said.
As the pandemic raged through the nation and led to the Tokyo Olympics being postponed by a year, Koizumi was largely sidelined amid the chaos. The media coverage of major politicians has instead gravitated more toward figures such as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus response.
The declining interest in Koizumi is definitely a sentiment shared among the established media in Japan, according to a journalist with one of Japan’s leading newspapers who used to routinely cover Koizumi.
What little news value is still placed on Koizumi, then, is just a holdover from the hyped coverage of him as the “prince” in the past, with the media not yet motivated to treat him as a serious politician.
“I think part of us still sees Koizumi as more of a celebrity than a key political player,” the journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, added, confessing that media interest in him still centers around trivial questions such as whether he blurts out something funny that makes headlines.
Gone are the days, he said, when Koizumi could just skate on his youth, suave appeal and a few bon mots.
“Can the ‘genius child actor’ transform into a full-fledged actor?” the journalist asked. That’s the stage he is in right now.”
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