LONDON — Is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi so different from other Japanese politicians that he can succeed in enforcing radical change in the political and economic system of the country?

An April 26 London Times article by respected journalist Anatole Kaletsky had the headline, “At last, the man who can turn Japan around.” Kaletsky sees Koizumi’s appointment as “part of a consensus in favor of a ‘comprehensive package’ of economic reforms that was clearly spreading through Japan’s civil service, political system and industrial establishment when I visited Tokyo earlier this year.” Koizumi’s victory suggested “that the sense of crisis has finally reached even the country’s most deeply conservative institution, the faction system of the LDP.”

I hope that Kaletsky is right, but I remain skeptical. Koizumi’s tasks are enormous and fraught with difficulties. To solve them, he needs to demonstrate that he has courage, determination, common sense and good judgment well beyond the average in Japanese politics. His reputation so far as a maverick or “henjin” (which might be translated kindly to mean “eccentric”) raises doubts about the extent to which he has the necessary qualities. However it is worth remembering that you can never be sure what a man is capable of until you try him out.

The fundamental issue for Koizumi is reform of the political system. He has begun well by calling for the abolition of the faction system on which the LDP is based and by choosing his Cabinet on a basis other than nomination by factions and the number of times the person nominated has been elected to the Diet. But Koizumi’s first Cabinet has already been termed “lightweight” because the number of its members with past experience in government is limited.

The factions in the LDP have been “abolished” more than once and have always reappeared. The basic reason for this is that the factions have controlled the money needed to fight Japanese elections. The only way to reduce the factions to simple groups of like-minded politicians is to apply effective and transparent limits to political funding and force Japanese lobby groups to make public all their political donations. Unless Koizumi grasps this issue, his “abolition” of the factions will be seen to be just another gambit in the Japanese game of politics.

Koizumi also needs to reform the constituency system to ensure that votes in urban and country constituencies are given equal weight. This is the only way of ensuring that the farming lobby loses its stranglehold on agricultural policy and will no longer be able to hold consumers to ransom.

New Komeito is apparently pressing for a return to medium-size constituencies. This would mean that candidates would need more, not less, money for electioneering and would help to perpetuate the faction system by permitting the LDP to put up candidates from different factions in the same constituency.

I fear that Koizumi, who will recognize that constituency changes would be very controversial and politically damaging to his own position, is likely to argue that these issues are secondary to his main task, which is to ensure Japan’s economic recovery. If so, he will fail in one of his most important challenges.

Kaletsky, who is an economic rather than a political commentator, argues that “Koizumi’s initial inclination to cut government borrowing immediately was manifestly insane.” He adds that “a full dose of Thatcherism is a bitter medicine that Japan in 2001 does not require.”

Instead, he argues, “What Japan needs instead is something closer to the Reaganomics of the mid-1980s.” I am not convinced by Kaletsky’s economic arguments, but the main flaw in his analysis in my view is that he does not give adequate weight to promoting the restructuring of Japanese companies and to fundamental reform of Japanese corporate governance.

Reagonomics involving tax cuts and easy money would be popular. Such policies may be necessary in the short term, if only to revive Japanese consumer confidence. But they could simply postpone the pain, which must come from increasing numbers of bankruptcies and unemployment.

Koizumi seems to accept that these are inevitable and to recognize that the pain must be mitigated through social-security measures, retraining and seeking out ways of creating alternative employment opportunities for workers who should be made redundant. But his task in persuading those affected to accept the inevitable will require more than just courage and determination. He needs to be prepared to become highly unpopular.

With elections approaching, will he be willing to tell the Japanese people that they must face greater trials and tribulations before they can expect to return to real economic growth? Koizumi is said to regard Winston Churchill as his political hero. During World War II, Churchill never disguised the dangers and sufferings Britain would have to face to achieve victory against the fascist dictators.

Japan’s position is fortunately much less dire than that of the British people in 1940-41, but serious pains are unavoidable. Will Koizumi be willing to tell the Japanese people the extent to which they will have to suffer?

While Koizumi starts on a high point with a popular mandate, he has many enemies in the party who will be looking for any and every opportunity to stab him in the back by exposing any peccadilloes he may have made and by criticizing any errors of judgment he may make.

Some errors he can hardly avoid making, with so many problems perpetually crowding on him. He already made one serious mistake when he declared that he would make an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine. This will add another complication to relations with a China already troubled by the issuing of a visa to the former president of Taiwan so he could come to Japan for medical treatment, and the stupid decision to limit imports of three Chinese horticultural products in response to lobbying by a relatively small number of Japanese farmers.

The appointment of Makiko Tanaka as foreign minister may help relations with China because her father, the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, took the lead in establishing relations with communist China. But does she have the ability and understanding in foreign affairs to help Japan play a global role commensurate with its wealth?

Koizumi faces another problem. Far too much is expected of him both at home and abroad. Inflated expectations are bound to be disappointed. Still, he can probably expect a honeymoon period with the media, and he need not fear comparisons with his unfortunate gaffe-prone predecessor. His face, hairstyle, clothing and reported leisure interests all ensure that he will be a distinctive figure. He is not one of the typical Japanese dark-suited politicians who are said to spend their days engaged in intrigue in smoke-filled rooms!

Some skepticism is justified, not least because prime ministers are fallible and, especially in Japan, come and (often soon) go, but also because what Japan needs even more than a new prime minister is a coherent series of convincing and effective policies.

This said, friendly observers of the Japanese scene must hope that Koizumi will manage to provide the necessary leadership to enable Japan to effect real and urgent reforms in politics and the economy.

We must also hope that he will manage to keep relations with America and Japan’s other friends on an even keel. In British parliamentary circles he is remembered not only for his regard for Churchill, but also as an active secretary of the Japan-British Parliamentary group in the Japanese Diet. So I say good luck to him and hope that he really will be the man who can turn Japan around.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.