Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Time of Reckoning for the Star of Theatrical Politics
HARA Yasushi  / Former Professor at Toyo University

October 20, 2003
On September 22, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro formed his second reshuffled coalition Cabinet upon re-election to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership. Having transformed Japanese politics from one that traditionally revolved around tacit understandings to one characterized by 'theatrical' performance over the past two years, Koizumi now stands at a crucial junction that will determine whether he will ultimately make his exit as a clown who could only dance on the political stage waving his flag of structural reform or win applause both at home and abroad as a reformer who brought change to Japan's political and economic system. The First Koizumi Cabinet, while radical in many ways, left little in terms of substance during the two years of its existence.

The Prime Minister intends to stick to his slogan of "no economic recovery without structural reform," but no visible progress was made with respect to reform under his first Cabinet. Worse, he proved totally incompetent in managing the economy and ended up delaying its recovery. Over the past two years the Japanese economy saw deflation deepen, the unemployment rate rise to a record high 5.5% and disposable income per head fall, while the banks have remained under the burden of nearly 40 trillion yen in bad loans. This is because Koizumi, rather than taking strategic steps towards structural reform, was preoccupied with debating ideology and dodging real issues. Despite his position as LDP president, he behaved as though he wasn't even a party member, making provocative remarks and labeling anti-Koizumi factions within the party as "forces resisting change." And despite the trouble he went through to get his civilian appointees to submit recommendations for reform, once time came to actually implementing them he backed down, blaming it on the "forces of resistance." While vociferously claiming he will go through with privatization of the postal system and dissolution of the Japan Highway Public Corporation as symbols of his reform policy, such reforms bear no relevance to Japan's escape from deflation which is a much more pressing need of global significance.

Another characteristic of Koizumi's 'theatrical' administration was that it managed to substitute the loss of confidence as an economic power that had spread among the Japanese people over more than a decade of stagnation with a growing sense of nationalism. In his response during parliamentary sessions, Koizumi put on a courageous show by using terms traditionally avoided as taboo, as in such remarks as "For all practical purposes, the Self Defense Forces should be considered a military entity," "I won't opt for a slave's peace. War can only be avoided through unwavering determination" and "If we are to recognize our right to collective defense, then we should revise our Constitution."

Prompted by a high-ranking American official to "show the flag," Koizumi did in fact dispatch the Maritime Defense Forces during the Iraq War, and now under his second government intends to send the Self Defense Forces to Iraq where post-war turmoil continues. How much appreciation the Bush Administration will show for such military assistance will no doubt become evident in the course of future Japan-U.S. relations regarding currency and trade.

Meanwhile, Koizumi's success in his groundbreaking summit meeting with North Korea's General Secretary Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang was subsequently marred by his politicizing of the abduction issue which reduced painstaking diplomatic efforts to nothing and caused a deterioration in mutual feelings among the Japanese and North Korean peoples. Although North Korean attitudes towards Japan are to be blamed for complicating the abduction issue, it was also the negative consequence of shortsighted political thinking. Instead of handling the matter as an intrinsically humanitarian issue, abduction victims were treated as hostages to be exchanged for normalization of diplomatic relations and prevention of North Korean nuclear development in a deal consummately political in nature. Koizumi also rubbed the national sentiments of Asian neighbors the wrong way with his self-serving insistence on paying respect to Japan's war dead at Yasukuni Shrine. Japan also failed to seize the initiative as an economic superpower at the Cancun ministerial meetings in the new round of World Trade Organization negotiations that presented a golden opportunity for establishing smooth relationships with developing nations over trade issues.

Apart from providing military assistance to the United States, Prime Minister Koizumi has thus accomplished very little in terms of foreign relations, yet again due to the apparent demerits of his theatrical style of politics.

In the latest drama over Koizumi's reelection to the LDP presidency, he impressed the gallery by appointing Abe Shinzo, a 49 year-old Member of Parliament who has only been elected three times, to the post of Cabinet Secretary. Dubbed the "Prince" of Japanese politics, Abe's grandfather was ex-war criminal and Prime Minister Kishi Shinsuke and father ex-foreign minister Abe Shintaro. Having gained nationwide popularity second only to Koizumi himself for his handling of the abduction issue as Cabinet Undersecretary in the First Koizumi Cabinet, Abe was chosen to represent the LDP campaign in the general elections expected to take place in November.

This choice in personnel is reminiscent the appointment of Tanaka Makiko, the daughter of tremendously popular ex-Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei who was herself enjoying great national popularity, to the post of Foreign Minister during the first Koizumi administration. However, under the pretext of returning the reigns of diplomacy to the people, Foreign Minister Tanaka abused her authority over bureaucratic appointments and took the bite out of Japan's diplomatic capabilities. This excess of populism incapacitated Japanese diplomacy, consequently damaging national interests. This scene in the theater of politics - typical of an immature democracy - played out as an orchestrated draw in which Tanaka retreated from politics, though Koizumi himself never took responsibility for appointing her in the first place. Abe has likewise obtained the approval of the Japanese people by seeking to resolve the abduction issue by means of circumventing the Foreign Ministry.

Turning our attention overseas, we find that Koizumi is not alone in tackling structural reform to break out of economic stagnation. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is leading his own structural reform effort under his "Agenda 2010" plan. Accordingly, unemployment insurance will be reduced in amount, health insurance and pension plans will undergo reform, business hours at retail outlets will be deregulated to revitalize consumption and tax cuts originally scheduled for next year will be brought forward. France is also pushing forward with the privatization of state-run enterprises and reductions in pension payments, while President Jacques Chirac has promised to continue tax cuts into the next year. Against this backdrop, both Germany and France are confronted with fierce opposition against reforms in the health insurance and pension systems from labor unions and other parties that have been staging frequent street demonstrations and strikes. It is they who constitute the genuine "forces of resistance."

In contrast, under the Koizumi Administration the taxpayers' portion of medical fees have gone up and pension benefits have been chipped away in the absence of angry protests, attributable in part to a characteristic restraint exercised by the Japanese. And this has enabled Koizumi to win accolades without embarking on fundamental reform, as long as he made a show of battling the "forces of resistance" within his own party.

History may credit Prime Minister Koizumi with demolishing the factional dynamics of Japanese politics, and of the LDP in particular. As a member of a minor party faction, to maintain his government Koizumi must continue to rely on the support not only of the Nagata-cho political district but of regional party members, and on his high popularity rating that may have fallen from the peak of 87% but nevertheless remain strong at 58%. Koizumi now faces the hurdle of general elections in November. The election would be the first test of his theater-style politics.

Then again, the Japanese people appear as though they still have their hopes pinned on the Prime Minister. And the Japanese economy may finally be entering a phase where it will be able to rise out of deflation unassisted by politics. In the eyes of the leaders of other economically advanced nations, Koizumi has certainly secured an envious position as the leading star of theatrical politics.

The writer is former professor of media communication at Toyo University. He is a former Asahi Shimbun journalist.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

原 康 / 元東洋大学教授

2003年 10月 20日












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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Time of Reckoning for the Star of Theatrical Politics