Mr. Junichiro Koizumi leaves the center stage of Japanese politics Tuesday, after five years and five months in power. He can claim some major accomplishments under the banner of structural reform. He also has created problems that must be overcome by the new administration in the years to come.
Apart from his policy-related legacies, whether positive or negative, the biggest change he wrought was a new style of political leadership and the political discourse accompanying it. The leadership was strong and the discourse was forceful and clear-cut. But the discourse was also shallow in substance. Some called it “one-phrase politics.” It was the linchpin of his strong public popularity and smacked of populism.
When Mr. Koizumi became prime minister, the biggest challenge was how to reduce the huge amount of nonperforming loans held by banks — a carryover from the nation’s economic bubble in the latter half of the 1980s. Despite resistance from major banks, the Koizumi administration set the end of March 2005 as the deadline for halving the percentage of their bad loans. The administration’s efforts bore fruit. It was declared in May 2005 that the percentage of bad loans had declined to a normal level. Certainly this was an accomplishment.
In a major departure from preceding administrations in the postbubble years, the Koizumi government stubbornly refused to increase public-works spending. This in itself should be counted as an achievement. After hitting bottom in January 2002, economic growth resumed and continues today. It is true that Mr. Koizumi’s policy worked. But it is also true that strenuous efforts by companies to cut costs and streamline the production process have been a major contributor to economic recovery.
Reorganization and privatization of the public highway corporations was an important reform measure. But the attitude Mr. Koizumi assumed on this issue raised suspicions that he was not really serious about it. Related legislation was flawed. The proposed laws lacked a mechanism for restraining expressway construction and would lead to future debts worth 40 trillion yen. Mr. Koizumi did not wield the leadership necessary to follow through on this reform path.
In postal service privatization, Mr. Koizumi’s political style came to the fore. He succeeded in turning the campaign for the Sept. 11, 2005, general elections into a single-issue contest, although voters’ views should have been sought on other issues. They included the viability of the pension system, North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development programs and relations with China and Korea. By focusing solely on postal-service privatization, he avoided having to elaborate on other reform plans. And in a theatrical gesture, he purged opponents of the postal service privatization bills from his Liberal Democratic Party.
By employing simple rhetoric and drawing a clear line between allies and foes, Mr. Koizumi advanced his political agenda. Catchphrases included “Crushing the LDP” and “Without Reform, There Can Be No Growth.” Without engaging in serious discussions about “reform,” Mr. Koizumi managed to bundle up opponents into the category of the “Forces of Resistance.” With this approach, he crushed opponents within the LDP, weakening the power of intraparty factions to the extent that the prime minister and party leadership exerted a stronger grip on the party. As a result of this, though, active discussion among party members on policy matters has been stifled.
In his controversial, repeated visits to the memorial for Japan’s war dead, Yasukuni Shrine, Mr. Koizumi deliberately shifted the meaning of a core question: how to view Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s and Yasukuni’s role in those wars. Mr. Koizumi quashed objections to his visits by declaring that they were a “matter of my heart,” the dictates of which he was unflinchingly true to. In this way, Mr. Koizumi created the impression that he was a strong leader with firm conviction. Although Mr. Koizumi may not be a nationalist in terms of ideology, his words and actions have encouraged nationalist sentiment in some segments of Japanese society.
To some people, Mr. Koizumi’s stance of attacking vested interests appeared fresh and unexpected for an LDP politician. Still, he is not the type of politician who seriously communicates with people about their concerns and carefully considers their situation. This trait showed itself, for example, in his failure to pay due attention to the fact that 30 percent of Japan’s workforce these days consists of nonregular workers.
Politics like Mr. Koizumi’s, relying heavily on rhetoric and style, will tend to fail to improve people’s actual well-being.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.