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Japan: Maverick in Charge

Debora Kuan


Jonichiru Koizumi (Photo: AFP)
For a Japan that has grown accustomed to rigidly conservative politics, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent election on April 24 indicated one thing: The times, they are a-changing. After all, the maverick reformer, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Japanese people see him, practically campaigned to this tune, crying: “Change the LDP! Change Japan!”

But whether or not Koizumi can bring about real reforms remains to be seen. Unlike his rival, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who heads the party’s largest faction, Koizumi does not have much of a power base. Diehard, old-style conservatives still dominate the party that has ruled Japan for 40 years.

On April 26, Koizumi showed that his campaign promises for party reform were not just empty rhetoric. Announcing his Cabinet line-up, Koizumi shocked the party with a completely unexpected list of names, including a record number of women, junior members, and nonpoliticians. Even more tellingly, Koizumi had completely ignored the party’s faction protocol.

According to press reports, Koizumi asked a stunned group of LDP members after the announcement, “Is this an earth-shattering list?” It was, no doubt, a rhetorical
question.

The refreshingly new cabinet lineup was met with public approval, as Koizumi’s ratings soared to around 80 percent. The independent Japan Times of Tokyo (May 9) attributed the record highs to a new administration’s typical “honeymoon” period, but remained optimistic about Koizumi’s potential.

“Koizumi is the kind of man who does what he says he will do—a man of action. He has the strength and courage to go his own way, no matter what,” Hirotada Asakawa wrote.

Tokyo’s centrist Yomiuri Shimbun interpreted the overwhelming public support rate as reflecting high expectations of Koizumi’s ability to deliver on structural reforms, which it called the “sine qua non of Japan’s resurrection” (May 8).

But the business-oriented Nikkei Weekly (April 30) remained cautious in its optimism, stressing the fact that Koizumi faces a “race against time.” It said, “He must demonstrate tangible progress on his reform pledges in less than three months, [when] his party is tested in the upper house election in July.”

In one major aspect though—foreign affairs—Koizumi has already reneged on a pledge. After winning the election, he assured South Korean President Kim Dae Jung that he would resolve the issue of recently released revisionist history textbooks, which glossed over atrocities Japan committed in World War II and, hence, inflamed Japan’s neighbors. Seoul presented a 35-point demand to alter the contents, but Tokyo rejected it outright.

According to the centrist Mainichi Shimbun of Tokyo (May 8), Koizumi said, “Although it is impossible to alter the contents of the textbooks concerned, we accept the points made in South Korea’s complaint.”
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