On Wednesday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi greeted the fifth anniversary of his rule, becoming Japan’s third-longest serving postwar leader after Eisaku Sato and Shigeru Yoshida.
As soon as it was inaugurated, the Koizumi Cabinet launched the challenging task of privatizing postal services and highway public corporations. The undertaking was part of the Cabinet’s campaign for structural reform, the top priority of its political agenda. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the administration moved to strengthen Japan’s defense alliance with the United States.
In Japan’s political history, Koizumi is likely to be remembered as a leader who made major changes in domestic and diplomatic policies. He deserves praise for kick-starting the recovery of the nation’s economy, which remained moribund throughout the “lost decade” of the 1990s, and for bringing persistent deflation to an end.
Koizumi reformed the nation’s policymaking process with a “top-down” decision-making system — highly unusual for a postwar leader — and shifted political power from the governing Liberal Democratic Party to the prime minister’s office.
Koizumi threatened to “crush the LDP,” if necessary, to implement reform, and went on to transform the party’s power structure. Under the single-seat constituency system, LDP executives, led by the party chief and the secretary general, already had strong power. With the advent of the Koizumi administration, the executives took over from LDP factions the power of distributing political funds and making Cabinet and party-post appointments.
Koizumi effectively monopolized power for assigning Cabinet and party posts without going through factions, thus weakening factional influence in the party.
Under Koizumi’s rule, public-works spending was sharply cut. His privatization drive caused the construction industry and a group of postmasters, the LDP’s traditional vote-gathering machines, to distance themselves from the party.
The government’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, chaired by the prime minister, began to play a central role in the policymaking process. Before Koizumi took power, the LDP’s Executive Council used to give the go-ahead for all government-sponsored legislation. Koizumi took away that power.
Koizumi, who lacks a strong power base in the LDP, owes his long rule to public approval ratings as high as 85 percent. Five years on, he still basks in ratings of 40 to 50 percent.
He has used the tactic of repeating terse, strong messages, such as “Without reform, there will be no growth,” impressing himself as the “champion of reform” on people’s minds.
His political acumen has contributed to his long rule. When government-sponsored postal reform bills were voted down in the Upper House last year, Koizumi dissolved the Lower House for a snap election in which the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, won more than two-thirds of the seats. LDP opponents of postal privatization were ousted from the party. Koizumi did justice to his reputation as the quintessential “political animal” who plays his hunch. Koizumi leads by making enemies and showing readiness to fight them.
The flip side of reform is the removal of vested interests. Koizumi is determined to end the long-standing collusion among politicians, bureaucrats and executives that has served as the LDP’s power base. Koizumi’s resolve is reflected in public prosecutors’ recent investigations of bid-riggings led by bureaucrats, including officials of the Defense Facility Administration Agency.
Koizumi’s strong reform drive, meanwhile, has had the effect of undermining the LDP’s traditional support base. In the April 23 by-election held in the Lower House’s 7th precinct in Chiba Prefecture, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan’s young female candidate defeated the LDP candidate. Small businesses that have traditionally supported the LDP failed to bring in votes, and droves of unaffiliated voters chose the DPJ candidate. This proved that the LDP’s vote-gathering machine has been seriously damaged.
The prime minister has yet to announce a plan to revive the party that he weakened. As things stand, the LDP could suffer a devastating loss to the DPJ in the Upper House election to be held in the summer of 2007.
Koizumi’s reform drive could also end with unsatisfactory results. Social and regional divides due to the fallout of reform policies is emerging as a new political issue. Public opinion is divided between supporters and skeptics of reform. A gap is widening between Koizumi — who argues that a gap to some degree should be tolerated — and public opinion.
In diplomatic and security policies, Koizumi’s pro-U.S. stance is conspicuous. Stressing the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance in the world, he ordered the deployment of Self-Defense Force ships in the Indian Ocean and troops in Iraq to help the U.S. war against terrorism. He also agreed to a plan for the Japanese government to pay $6 billion to help cover the cost of transferring 8,000 U.S Marines from Okinawa to Guam as part of the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.
Koizumi scored a stunning diplomatic success when he visited Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and brought home five Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents. However, he bears heavy responsibility for causing a deadlock in Japan’s diplomacy in Asia by making annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine. The Yasukuni controversy has prevented reciprocal visits between the Japanese leader on one hand and the Chinese and South Korean leaders on the other. Southeast Asian leaders recently expressed concern that strained relations between Japan and China, the major Asian powers, could adversely affect the region.
If the situation is not remedied, Japan could end up diplomatically isolated in Asia. The DPJ’s new leader, Ichiro Ozawa, said recently that Japan’s deceased wartime leaders should not be honored at Yasukuni Shrine.
Under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan accepted the judgments handed down by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. In my opinion, Koizumi should stop paying his respects at Yasukuni, where Class-A war criminals are honored with the war dead. Construction of a nonreligious national monument for the war dead, under a plan considered by an LDP group, should be promoted.
Since the end of the Cold War, nationalism has surged worldwide. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone argues that “the wisdom to contain nationalism” is crucial. Koizumi’s diplomatic deadlock in Asia stems from the lack of strategic thinking on how to deal with the emergence of China.
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