The Koizumi restoration
Sep 14th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Japan’s remarkable prime minister is about to stand down. Will his revolution last?
IT HAS been a thrilling show, but now it is over. On September 20th Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party will elect a new leader to replace Junichiro Koizumi, who will formally stand down as prime minister at the end of the month. He is leaving, undefeated at the polls and still popular after five and a half years in the job, only because of term limits imposed by his own party’s constitution. But in that brief time he has done more to “change the LDP, change Japan”, to quote his best slogan, than any politician of his generation.
Mr Koizumi’s achievement is threefold (see article). First, he has changed the way politics is carried out in a country that used in effect to be a secretive one-party state, whose leaders emerged from obscure battles between factions convening in smoke- and sake-filled rooms far away from voters’ eyes. Mr Koizumi, a rank underdog, snatched the leadership in 2001 only after a huge popular vote from party members forced the hands of the party bosses. He went on to win four elections by appealing, in a way that no Japanese politician had ever even attempted, directly to the electorate. His shaggy hair and natural charisma were refreshing in a party best known for conformity. Most startling of all for Japan, he favoured making big economic reforms.
Those reforms, the second component of his achievement, have probably been a disappointment to him. Stubbornly resisted by his own party, they have been delayed and partial—most notoriously in the case of the privatisation of Japan’s postal savings system, which has too often been a way for politicians to direct citizens’ savings to favoured contractors. But at least Mr Koizumi began the work of breaking up the “iron triangle”—big business, bureaucracy, LDP—making government a bit more accountable, reining in profligate and inefficient spending and in the process starting to tackle Japan’s mountainous public-sector debt.
Partially successful, too, has been Mr Koizumi’s quest to let Japan start to play the part it deserves in foreign affairs, his third claim to a place in history. He sent peacekeepers to Iraq, the boldest venture by Japanese troops for half a century, and has worked hard with America to make Japan depend less on America’s military umbrella and shoulder more of the burden of its own defence. But he has not succeeded at what ought to have been his priority: the rewriting of Japan’s constitution, which renounces war, to assert Japan’s right to participate in collective security. At present Japan’s peacekeepers are highly constrained, and cannot legally use their firepower to help defend foreign civilians or assist their allies.
A qualified record then, but the point of Mr Koizumi’s stint in office is that he has for the first time challenged the comfortable assumptions that have governed Japan since the war. He has attacked entrenched power: of the LDP’s own party bosses, of the bureaucrats, and of the victors of 1945, who imposed pacifism on Japan. The big question, however, is whether any of this has changed for good. Perhaps Mr Koizumi is just a latter-day version of the Meiji emperor who, in the late 1860s, wrested power from the shoguns (feudal lords who had usurped it) and set Japan on the path of modernisation. The “Meiji restoration” did not last long: a new band of oligarchs and militarists swiftly gathered real power back.
In the case of China, proceed with caution
Mr Koizumi’s successor, it now seems certain, will be Shinzo Abe, currently Japan’s chief cabinet secretary. Like Mr Koizumi before him, he is more or less untested and, at 51, relatively young. But he shows little sign of being an iconoclast. Though Mr Abe is a protégé of Mr Koizumi’s, and is generally numbered in the reformist camp, he has not been one of its truly courageous battlers. Nor does he have much of Mr Koizumi’s charisma. The danger therefore exists that he will be able neither to enthuse Japan’s voters in the way Mr Koizumi did, nor use personal popularity to force his still-reluctant party further down the road of reform.
One area where Mr Abe’s reforming zeal may exceed Mr Koizumi’s is in international relations. He has already committed himself to rewriting the constitution. But the trick is to do this without sending Japan’s relations with China into a tailspin. Japan and China are each other’s biggest trading partners, and under Mr Koizumi relations have been bad—in part because of Mr Koizumi’s provocative habit of visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine, and in part because China detests Japan’s ambition to play a bigger role. Mr Abe is a hawk who entertains dark suspicions about China. He has also been a regular visitor to Yasukuni. If he stays away from the shrine and makes an early fence-mending mission to China, he could do much for Japan’s standing in the world. If not, he risks squandering the legacy of a remarkable prime minister.