Japanese Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi is looking more like an absolute
monarch than simply a prime minister.
Prior to this month's Lower House
election, Koizumi seemed very much as if he was
about to be relegated to the history books. His
prized postal reform package went down in flames
with the help of some of his own party members.
Then he called a snap election, which many
described as political suicide.
out he either beat the odds or is a brilliant
politician who perfectly read the mood of the
electorate. Either way his Liberal
(LDP)captured an overwhelming victory over its
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rivals, capturing
296 of 480 seats.
Having crushed the DPJ
at the polls and eradicated, humiliated or
silenced his LDP rivals, the 63-year-old Koizumi
has in the process greatly increased the number of
lawmakers who owe alliance to him. He also
increased the female presence in parliament, with
a record high 43 women elected.
swept to power in April 2001. Some predicted his
cabinet would last six months, yet today he is on
his way to being one of Japan's longest-serving
prime ministers (only five of Japan's 27
post-World War II leaders have survived for three
years or longer).
And yet, after
parliament reelected him prime minister last week,
Koizumi reaffirmed his commitment to step down
from office in September 2006 when his term as LDP
party president expires.
President of Asahikawa University and a political
commentator said: "I believe he will step down
next September, just as he has said. While such an
action appears to fly in the face of political
logic, it perfectly fits in with Koizumi's
Most political analysts
struggle to explain why Koizumi is so keen to
abdicate after winning such a stunning victory
that greatly enhanced his authority. Yamauchi has
a theory: "Koizumi wants to go out when he is at
his peak and basking in glory - that way he can
avoid dealing with the chronic problems plaguing
Japan like the pensions crisis, the social welfare
nightmare and our battered relations with China
and Korea, a problem directly caused by Koizumi's
insensitive brand of nationalism."
Japanese politics being what they are and Koizumi
being unpredictable at times, it is possible he
may go beyond next September. Regardless, the
prime minister has a full plate and he is wasting
no time getting down to work.
his first policy speech to the new Japanese
parliament on Monday, stating his determination to
rapidly enact postal privatization legislation
(Given Koizumi's new absolute monarch-like status,
his fixation with postal reform seem strange,
unless his policy outline genuinely is the last
crusade of a leader who plans to relinquish his
crown next year).
After achieving a
landslide election victory that gave him a strong
mandate for reform, the scope of his first policy
address was unexpectedly limited and extremely
short. Apart from the specifics of postal reform,
there was an absence of any other detailed policy
initiative and silence on the key issues of the
pension and social welfare reform. The decision
not to produce a comprehensive long-term agenda
appears to confirm Koizumi's pledge to leave
office in September 2006, a date that will now
increasingly begin to dominate the political
Since Koizumi's LDP and its
coalition partner, the New Komeito, now control
more than two thirds of the seats in the powerful
Lower House, the postal bills are certain to be
passed in the current special session, which ends
on November 1. Japan Post will be divided into
four units by October 2007 with its postal savings
and life insurance arms fully privatized within
about 10 years.
Postal privatization is a
decades-long ambition of Koizumi's and it was LDP
resistance to it that led him to the snap
election. Stressing his poll triumph, the prime
minister told parliament, "I respect the voice of
the people and take it upon myself to realize
his address with a firm commitment: "I will do my
best to perform my duty as prime minister,
devoting myself in line with the public's
cooperation without fearing pain [from reform],
without hesitating to challenge the walls of
vested interests and without being bound by past
The leader of the main
opposition DPJ, Seiji Maehara, complained, "Apart
from the postal reform plan, the speech was
totally lacking in substance."
Yamauchi said, "In his address to parliament,
Koizumi didn't even bother to mention the critical
problems facing the country because he clearly
intends to leave the mess for someone else to
Still, Koizumi did touch on some
domestic issues such as reforming state-run
financial institutions, reducing the number of
government employees and implementing measures for
asbestos-related deaths and ailments, but he
failed to provide any concrete plans for
accomplishing these objectives.
equally vague and detail-dodging about
international affairs. He briefly mentioned UN
Security Council expansion, improving relations
with China and South Korea and continuing Japan's
Self-Defense Forces (SDF) refueling assistance to
US forces in Afghanistan, as well as normalizing
ties with North Korea.
He hinted at
extending Japan's SDF troop deployment in Iraq
beyond its December mission deadline. Koizumi said
he would take into consideration "the local
situation, requests of the Iraqi people and the
debate over Koizumi's future will likely continue
until next September.
analysts will likely remain divided over Koizumi's
real intentions. Kevin Cooney, a professor of
political science at Jackson, Tennessee's Union
University who specializes in Japan, commented:
"For all practical purposes, Koizumi can stay as
long as he likes as prime minister and I think he
will. I could see him staying on for up to five
years or until the next Lower House election. The
LDP likes a winner and Koizumi is a winner."
He added, "Koizumi will play coy for
awhile about staying on and he will make it seem
as if he was begged to stay on by others."
Michael Penn, a lecturer in the Faculty of
Law's Department of Policy Studies at Japan's
Kitakyushu University takes a contrary view:
"Koizumi indicated clearly that he intends to step
down next year. I have no reason to doubt his
word. For better or worse, he tends to do what he
says he is going to do."
Jeff Kingston, a
professor at Temple University Japan and author of
Japan's Quiet Transformation, provides a
synthesis: "I believe Koizumi when he reaffirmed
his intention to stand down next September and
also believe he will change his mind. There have
already been calls for him to extend his term, not
only to take care of the unfinished business on
his reform agenda but also to lead the LDP into
the Upper House elections in July 2007."
Koizumi is not the only major world leader
planning to disappear after an election win.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who despite an
impressive domestic record has drawn heavy
criticism for his decision to invade Iraq with US
forces, is also preparing to step down within a
year or so. Like Koizumi, Blair has said will not
lead his party into another election. Blair's
finance minister, Gordon Brown, is increasingly
being treated as if he were the prime
Kingston wonders whether
either Blair or Koizumi will actually preside over
the smooth coronation of an anointed successor. He
commented, "The art of the exit is difficult;
usually politicians can't resist riding the wave
until it sends them crashing into the surf."
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow
at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global