Japan’s gossipy media kingmakers have finally gone too far. Not content with creating Japan’s system of revolving-door prime ministers, they now want to dump a creature of their own creation, Junichiro Koizumi, only a year after he took office. They want Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, as his successor.
Readers of this column know I am no great admirer of Koizumi. He knows little about economics, and has left the handling of an already badly damaged economy to academic theorists caught up in U.S. and British supply-side dogmas — almost 100 percent contrary to the demand-side policies Japan needs.
In foreign policy he has been a disaster, wandering the Asian scene with vague plans for future economic cooperation and claiming to want to be friends with everyone while antagonizing neighbors with visits to that symbol of former Japanese militarism, Yasukuni Shrine, and remaining deaf to their complaints about Japanese school textbooks whitewashing that militarism.
The main result has been to add to China’s rising clout in Asia and the beginnings of something some of us have long predicted — a Beijing-Seoul alliance that one day will cause immense harm to Japanese interests. His messy sacking in January of the one Japanese foreign minister to try to take Asia seriously, Makiko Tanaka, did not help.
Koizumi’s main interest seems to be a hawkish urge to increase military cooperation with the United States and to see Japan’s military power extended in Asia. That too is hardly likely to endear him to many Asians, even if Canberra, which also likes to see itself as a U.S. sidekick in Asia, is delighted.
Personality-wise he is also flawed. He likes the lion image his party has created for him. But a man who leaves his wife in the sixth month of her pregnancy and has refused ever since to see her or the son she bore him is no lion-heart.
Tanaka once caused a minor sensation by labeling him as a “henjin” — weirdo. Certainly there is something weird about an obsessive desire to privatize Japan’s efficient post office savings system in favor of Japan’s very inefficient banking system. I used to assume he was acting at the behest of the banks. But others say that as an ex-Finance Ministry official he still bears a grudge over the way the vast funds accumulated by post office savings and insurance schemes gave more bureaucratic power to the rival Posts and Telecommunications Ministry.
My hunch says Koizumi will end up with an image more like the “erimaki tokage” (Australian frilled lizard) which caused such a frenzy when it was discovered by the Japanese media in the mid-1980s. People liked the way the large reptile flared a frightening frill when alarmed, but turned tail and ran when it realized the show had been ineffective.
Koizumi’s one redeeming quality is the way he has tried to break the power of the factions in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But he himself is a product of that factional system. His efforts to replace consensual politics with Cabinet-directed policies would also be interesting, if he had an effective Cabinet. Without that, he ends up as an Asian version of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Even so, he does not deserve the way the media commentators are already gloating over his possible demise. They are up to their favorite tricks. First they make a fuss over some mishap that has caused a fall in popularity ratings. Then they make a fuss about the fall, which guarantees Japan’s easily mesmerized public will register a further fall, and so on.
Currently, they are using corruption scandals in the LDP to attack him. The fact that the scandals occurred long before he came to power and that his antifaction stance is one reason they are now being exposed, and might even be eliminated in the future as factional demands for funds are reduced, is ignored.
The Japanese ethic says the man at the top is responsible for any fuss during his watch. Little wonder so much effort is devoted to covering up scandals, and that the LDP prime minister to remain longest in postwar power was the devious Eisaku Sato (1964-72), a master of the art.
The same media commentators played a key role in the crude lambasting of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori after he had been in office less than a year. Together with his predecessor Keizo Obuchi, he had helped the economy make a small recovery. His main sin was to show contempt for the media.
Obuchi had been under flak right from the start. As participant and watcher, I recall how on his nomination night the commentators on the TV talk-show panels, NHK included, ridiculed him both for his economic policies and his alleged “cold pizza” image, only to have to eat their words as the economy improved and his humanity and common sense became obvious.
The more prominent commentators then were telling us how much better “structural-reform” Koizumi would have been as prime minister. Now that they have him, they want to get rid of him in favor of the controversial Ishihara. All this promises good ratings for their shows. But chasing ratings is a lousy way to run a country.
They are helped in all this by massive public disillusionment with the current political system. It is now taken for granted that no regular politician can win a major election decided by urban voters. The LDP is seen as so ridden with corruption that even its reasonably clean or more competent politicians are tainted. The opposition parties are still not taken seriously.
One result is that in recent Tokyo and Osaka elections the winners have included two TV comedians, one later found guilty of sexual molestation. Ishihara owed his 1999 gubernatorial victory to his open denunciation of the LDP and the maverick image that had once helped Koizumi.
If Ishihara does manage to lead the LDP or some new party to national victory, these factors will continue to operate. That plus his strong nationalism, his visceral dislike for both the U.S. and China, and his gut determination to shake up Japanese politics could lead to some interesting times. The media will get the ratings it did not deserve.
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