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9 July 2001

The triumph of the accidental hero

The Japanese have fallen in love with their new prime minister - even though they didn't vote for hi

By Victoria James

They call it the “Koizumi effect”, but “rabu rabu” (true love) is nearer the mark. Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s charismatic prime minister, elected just two months ago, has the whole country in a collective swoon.

“A silver-maned ace,” drooled one reporter covering the Tokyo metropolitan elections on 24 June. “This charming bachelor,” sighed Professor Tom Plate of the University of California Los Angeles, in an aside from his east Asian analysis of Koizumi’s policies. The Tokai professor and former newswire boss Kenzo Uchida comes over all trembly about Koizumi’s “sensibility”, while a love-struck 74-year-old in the prefecture of Kanagawa threatened to leap to her death if she could not meet the prime minister.

With his promises of reform and a stylish £50-a-time perm, Koizumi has won a public approval rating consistently above 80 per cent, and will most probably secure the Sangiin, the upper house, for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the elections to come on 29 July. It is a far cry from the situation a few months ago, when Koizumi’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, was evaluated disapprovingly by 81.8 per cent of the electorate and the LDP was steering a course straight for the rocks of electoral disaster.

How did it happen? No one really knows. Back in March, the political forecasters Toshi Maeda and Kanako Takahara were confidently predicting “that the ruling camp seems unlikely to select any reform-oriented politician to be the next leader”. The dissatisfaction of Japan’s electorate certainly built to a head during Mori’s year in office, but, in reality, Koizumi was elected prime minister by default when the LDP, which dominates the present coalition governing Japan, selected him as party leader. Its critics allege that the LDP is less a political entity than a club of ambitious people, abiding by certain rules (rapid rotation of senior positions, complete obedience to the party line) to ensure swift promotion, high office and then a lucrative post-political career. Power is concentrated in the hands of “shadow shoguns” or “kingmakers”, who are themselves in hock to vote-holding groups controlled by industry.

The political influence wielded by Japanese industry has existed for as long as Japanese democracy itself. When the Meiji revolution of 1868 replaced the shoguns’ military rule with a parliamentary-imperial system, tile-makers along the Sumida River offered -100 a year to the government in exchange for restrictions on competition. Their descendants have been doing the same ever since, and it was estimated before the LDP leadership elections that 65 per cent of the 2.4 million registered party members were controlled by construction bosses supporting Ryutaro Hashimoto, Koizumi’s failed rival.

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In the event, Koizumi won 123 out of the 141 votes collectively cast by the party rank and file. The ageing vote-machine had malfunctioned, and reluctant LDP elders realised that exercising their kingmaking powers to force the remaining 346 LDP Diet member votes for Hashimoto would be seen as thwarting the will of the people. In the end, Koizumi took barely half of the MPs’ votes, but that was all he needed.

Not beholden to party interests for his election, Koizumi has ignored them ever since – and the politically jaded public loves him for it. He installed Makiko Tanaka, daughter of the late, reforming prime minister Kakuei Tanaka as foreign minister. To read the newspapers – Japan’s political news is fed through exclusive party “press clubs”, and the trade-off for access is verbatim reporting – Tanaka is a national disaster. Endless column inches attack her departmental shake-ups, outspoken opinions on the US missile defence system and, dammit, her presumption in being a woman governing men. Yet so extraordinary is her popular support that Tanaka’s name was even bandied about during the LDP’s dark, leaderless days.

Together, Tanaka and Koizumi are redefining political leadership in Japan. Whether they will succeed is another matter. For once, the journalistic love of alliteration hits the nail on the head: “Koizumi: can stardom become success?” was one headline in the English-language press on 28 May; just four days later, the same publication asked: “Can Koizumi turn popularity into power?”

It is a valid question. The premier’s clearly stated policies are few, and the best known is a desire to privatise the post office. The economic challenges facing Japan are huge, but also crowding on to the agenda are major constitutional issues: the country’s right to collective self-defence; the possibility of female succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne; the direct election of the prime minister. Then there is Koizumi’s stated desire to clean up politics itself, sweeping away both the faction system of party subgroups and Japan’s weighted electoral system, which gives the farming lobby a stranglehold on agricultural policy by counting rural votes for more than urban ones. Finally, there are prickly foreign relations to be negotiated, especially with neighbouring China and Korea.

It would be a tall order, even for a leader fully backed by his party, and many in the LDP would like to see Koizumi fail. One elder grumbled anonymously about the “publicity gimmick” of a cabinet containing five women and three non-governmental lawmakers. Rumours circulate that the old guard will take their gloves off after the “Koizumi effect” has got the party safely back in power in this month’s election.

With no direct election, voters can show their support for Koizumi only by casting their ballot for the LDP, something that many remain reluctant to do. Even the Tokyo results were somewhat short of a dazzling victory: the LDP took just 36 per cent of the vote, with the turnout at 50 per cent.

But party machinations may come too late, for Koizumi’s appeal goes over the heads in his party to the people. While many in Britain lament the rise of US-style personality politics, Japan is responding to it thirstily, and with the current elections, television has finally come of age as a campaign medium. One advert that is more of a personal than a party political broadcast shows Koizumi confessing to the camera: “So I’m an eccentric? People judged eccentric in Nagata-cho [Toyko’s Westminster] are thought pretty normal by the general public.” Pictures of a groomed Koizumi hanging out with President Bush at Camp David have reassured this image-conscious nation that they at last have a leader who is an asset, and not an embarrassment, on the world stage.

Koizumi appears to have resurrected a moribund Japanese institution: the body politic. Perhaps made cautious by the direction in which wartime leaders took them, disenchanted by decades of high-level scandal (even Tanaka’s popular father finally fell on the sword of financial wrongdoing), and alienated by a bullet-speed gravy train that has delivered ten prime ministers in the past decade, the Japanese do not participate in their national affairs. In Junichiro Koizumi, however, it seems that Japan at last has a leader who will engage them in politics again.

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