Commentary / Japan

The humbling of Shinjiro Koizumi

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Shinjiro Koizumi has long been cast as a future prime minister in the media and the public eye. Since entering the Diet in 2009, the son of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has used his sense of style, his oratory skills and his penchant for speaking out against his home Liberal Democratic Party’s policies to build a strong support base.

Thus when Koizumi received his first minister-level posting in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, most observers focused on it as an opportunity for a rising star to shine on a bigger stage. Fewer saw it for what it really was: a power play by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Rather than looking at this posting as an opportunity, this is in fact a major political test for Koizumi, one that has already seen him humbled in front of domestic and international audiences alike. Abe placed Koizumi in a high risk, low reward Cabinet billet, basically daring him to choose between toeing the administration’s line to keep Cabinet support behind him or failing alone on a prominent stage. The decisions Koizumi makes while serving in this role will shape his long-term political trajectory in ways that most observers have yet to identify.

For years, Koizumi’s popularity and measured approach to his maverick behavior kept him untouchable in the LDP. The party needed his popularity, and as a junior member, Koizumi really was not in any position to affect policy. That changed in September 2018.

At the last party presidential election, many watched and waited to see whether Koizumi would back Abe or the lone opponent, Shigeru Ishiba. To preserve his reputation as an anti-establishment reformer, Koizumi needed to back Ishiba; however, he had to balance his decision in a way that prevented major blowback from the powerful Abe administration. Koizumi ended up disclosing that he was voting for Ishiba on the day of the presidential election. In that way, he issued a protest to Abe-led LDP politics that neither harmed election results nor tied Koizumi to Ishiba’s campaign.

Few in the Abe administration would have forgotten Koizumi’s vote to Ishiba, and because Koizumi’s rhetoric was growing stronger and his position in the party elevating, Abe made Koizumi an offer he couldn’t refuse: the minister of environment billet.

For Koizumi, the opportunity would have seemed too good to be true: a first-time Cabinet posting with a full ministry beneath it. Also, since environmental issues do not rank high among Abe’s personal policy agenda items, Koizumi would have greater leeway than most Cabinet ministers to advance his own policy ideas. On top of that, the billet would allow Koizumi to shine on progressive issues on both at home and abroad.

Despite the potential upsides, there were specific reasons why Abe would have chosen this billet as a test. First of all, bringing Koizumi into his Cabinet lends the young politician’s popularity to his Cabinet’s approval ratings. Also, because Abe does not have a sizable stake in environmental issues, he does not have to worry about Koizumi infringing upon his own core policies.

Here is where Abe’s move gets tricky for Koizumi: Up until now, Koizumi has not done anything formal on environmental policy; his focus has been reconstruction and social security reform. As such, the position of minister of health, labor, and welfare would have been a more logical fit, but that billet went to Abe-ally Katsunobu Kato.

The minister of environment position is also high risk, low reward, in that there is not usually enough time for the minister to advance any policies that will grant political accolades — after all, no minister could be expected to solve climate change or renewable energy in a one-to-two year time span — but there are plenty of environmental problems that could quickly tarnish a political reputation.

There is also the issue of nuclear energy. Koizumi’s father is the poster child for the “nuclear zero” movement, and as environment minister Shinjiro would be in a position to directly oppose this position in protecting the administration’s pro-nuclear policies.

Already, the effects of this power play have started to manifest. Koizumi responded to one of Abe’s challenges in his first news conference as minister, stating that Japan needs to shutter its nuclear reactors. While the comment generated some buzz, the Abe Cabinet immediately shut down Koizumi’s remarks when the newly appointed METI minister Isshu Sugawara flatly stated that it is unrealistic for Japan to eliminate nuclear power altogether. Koizumi later had to walk back his remarks, stating that he will “do [his] best to reduce nuclear power in the future.”

The next hit came less than two weeks later, when Koizumi traveled to the United Nations headquarters to address international representatives on proposals for climate change. His ministerial debut on the world stage received significant media attention, but for the wrong reasons. Koizumi remarked that for climate change policies to work, “it’s got to be fun; it’s got to be cool; it’s got to be sexy, too.”

When asked to present concrete ideas on how to do that, Koizumi remarked that it would not be sexy if he did. When further pressed on how to reduce Japan’s reliance upon coal, Koizumi stated that he had only recently taken the minister position and would have to study that issue.

One month into the job, the nuclear topic came back around for Koizumi. When Typhoon Hagibis struck Fukushima, the storm carried bags of low-level radioactive waste into a nearby river. This presented Koizumi with the unwinnable task of attempting to assuage concerns via Diet testimony.

This past Saturday, Koizumi visited a victim’s association for Minamata disease, an affliction stemming from industrial wastewater. The association asked Koizumi what the ministry was doing to advance policies related to the disease. Koizumi explained that he would take great efforts toward those ends, but his words fell on deaf ears. The quote from an association member that circulated in the media was, “What comes out of his mouth sounds good. But he’s not really saying anything at all.”

For a politician who was all but untouchable in the media for the past decade, all of this bad press is starting to reveal two truths that many political observers already knew: One, Koizumi is inexperienced; and two, he is not yet politically powerful enough to provide his own top cover within the LDP. Although he routinely ranks high among respondents as the top pick for prime minister, the reality is that he still has years before he is ready for the job, whether in terms of experience or in intra-party political strength.

This is not to suggest that Koizumi is any less qualified than the average LDP Cabinet minister. After all, this is the same party that produced a cybersecurity minister that did not know how to use a computer and a minister in charge of the Northern Territories who could not remember the names of the territories — of which there are only four. The difference is, none of those Cabinet ministers aspired to do much beyond hold onto their respective Diet seats. Koizumi has grander aspirations, and that makes him a prime target for opponents on both ends of the political spectrum.

Koizumi can still rebound from this. He needs to take the opportunity to build strong ties with the bureaucracy. The better he takes care of his ministry, the better it will take care of him in terms of preparation for Diet testimony and supporting him in policy innovation.

Koizumi will also need to keep the long-game in mind. His off-hand remarks about the LDP and Abe administration were good parlor tricks for winning public approval, but he now needs to pick his battles. Keeping quiet on certain issues will hurt his image as a reformer in the near-term, but it will also buy him much needed time and capital to formulate his own concrete policies and generate enough support from within the LDP to action them.

Koizumi will still need to play to his strengths, realizing where he can use his oratory skills and image to support policy innovation. A big decision will be whether he takes paternity leave as a Cabinet minister. Although unrelated to his environment portfolio, the decision of a Cabinet member, especially one as high profile as Koizumi, to take leave after his child is born would set an important precedent for the Japanese government.

Finally, Koizumi must embrace this humbling experience. He will have to learn from his mistakes and establish new strategies moving forward. If he truly hopes to ascend to Japan’s highest office and reform the LDP in the process, his tests will be much more challenging than this one that the prime minister issued him just a little over a month ago.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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