Japan after Koizumi will continue to remain the world’s second biggest economy, perhaps achieve more economic miracles but the nearly 5 years and five months of flamboyance and focus that Japan enjoyed under Koizumi’s tenure will take some efforts, luck, and a host of other factors to achieve again…. Japan and the world will be poorer without Koizumi, writes M Serajul Islam
In the land of the Rising Sun, a star has set. Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister when Shinzo Abe assumed office of president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 26 September which has ruled Japan since 1955 except for a few months in 1993. Koizumi had been Prime Minister for 5 years and five months that is in LDP’s factionalised politics almost a miracle making his tenure the third longest among Japan’s post-Second World War prime ministers. What makes Koizumi’s tenure exceptional is the fact that he stayed in power by dismantling almost all traditions in LDP’s secretive politics. In a society where consensus is of the essence, he stamped his own will and vision in all major decisions while he has been in power. Koizumi’s departure will end an era in Japan’s politics during which he split open Japan’s politics and economy and subjected both to much needed reforms that everyone thought were necessary but no one before him dared to undertake.
Koizumi’s long tenure defies any simple explanation because the odds he had to fight to remain in office have been tremendous. He inherited an office where power before him was exercised on the prime minister’s behalf by bosses of the factions of the ruling LDP. He inherited an economy that was stagnating because no prime minister before him had the courage or the political will to make the structural reforms that were necessary after the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s because a nexus among powerful politicians, bureaucrats and private sector stood in the way. Where no prime minister before him dared to tread because of these odds, Koizumi did so fearlessly and set into motion the reform agenda he had articulated in his mind from his long experience in politics. It may be too early to tell whether the path that Koizumi charted for his country will be successful for his reforms are still in incubation but by bringing the much needed reforms into the centre of the political stage, Koizumi has charted for Japan a course that no one contradicts was necessary.
A quintessential reformer
Koizumi has been the quintessential reformer. His family and political background both set him up for the role. An economics graduate of the prestigious Keio University, Koizumi went to England for further studies but returned without finishing his studies following the death of his father. In 1970, he became a political aide to Takeo Fukuda, later to become prime minister. As parliamentary vice-minister of finance (1979), minister of health (1988 and 1996) and minister of post and telecommunications (1992) he watched from very close quarters how an old generation of LDP leaders without a vision for the future was resisting change to maintain their privileges. He also prepared himself for his reform role from lessons he drew from historical figures such as Shoin Yoshida (1830-1859), a patriot and scholar, who in the turbulent period before the Meiji Restoration showed courage and conviction as an educator that helped produce many outstanding men who led Japan during the Meiji Restoration that ushered the country’s modern era. His other respected historical personality is Winston Churchill who influenced him by his indomitable sprit in fighting Hitler. His brief marriage in the late 1970s ended when his wife was pregnant with a third son who he never saw nor showed any inclination to see.
By the time he became prime minister, his politics and his vision for reforms were his sole focus in life. In his mind, he understood the reforms that needed to be taken for Japan’s future very clearly. Thus he could say upon becoming prime minister ‘I want to destroy the old LDP’ because he saw the resistance to change and reform that were necessary for Japan’s future embedded in his own party. He took up each reform issue separately with dedication that was awesome. In politics, he assessed that a weak prime minister, prey to faction bosses, was the crucial problem. Koizumi was thus determined to wrest power from the faction bosses and make the prime minister’s office powerful from day one in office. When Koizumi assumed office there were a number of factions in the LDP of which the Mori faction to which he himself belonged and the Hashimoto faction being the two largest. Behind the scenes, the faction bosses manoeuvred and controlled the members of the LDP, chose the prime ministers, selected for them their cabinets and also set their agendas. Koizumi’s first task was to take power away from the faction bosses. Upon becoming prime minister, he did not allow them to choose either his cabinet or the agenda of his government. He did so ruthlessly but efficiently without much more than a murmur. He encouraged young LDP parliamentarians to remain out of the influence of the factions. In fact, in the elections held last year, he brought to politics at least 80 young parliamentarians who have been given the name ‘Koizumi kids’. Koizumi personally encouraged these young Diet members not to sign into any faction in his desire to end the rule of the faction bosses within the LDP.
In the economy, Koizumi’s reforms focused on breaking the hold of the central government over the local governments. He was keen to break the powerful ministry of finance that he identified as the root of many problems in the economy. In this regard, the trinity of reform package was the most important one. That package proposes to decentralise the financial powers of taxation from the centre to the local governments. Reforms have also been undertaken to cut down huge government expenditures.
Koizumi’s other key reform of the economy has been the privatisation of the postal services for which last year he even put his own future and his party’s at stake by dissolving the parliament and seeking an early election when some of his own members voted with the opposition to defeat the bills related to postal privatisation in the upper house. The privatisation of the postal services will release US$ 3 trillions for fruitful use, money that now languishes in deposits that are honey upon which the politicians and local-level bureaucrats infest. Once privatised, the postal service now employing close to 300,000 people will also be able to get rid of a huge and largely unnecessary bureaucracy.
In effect, Koizumi’s economic reforms have been directed in reducing the influence of the politicians and the bureaucrats who use the central government’s financial resources to indulge in huge public expenditures, a lot of them un-necessary, which have become breeding grounds of corruption. His focus was upon reducing the central government’s power, influence and expenditures through decentralisation.
In international politics, Koizumi gave Japan a new assertiveness. On Iraq, he went along with the USA, despite considerable opposition at home because he considered it necessary for strengthening the US-Japan strategic alliance. During his term, the Japan-US strategic alliance was reassessed and strengthened. He developed extremely close friendship with Bush.
Yet, when he needed to deal with the issues of the 13 abductees who were kidnapped to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, an issue that touches the psyche of every Japanese, he went to Pyongyang in September, 2002, against the United States’ expressed wishes and was able to bring back some of the abductees while getting information about a few others.
His yearly visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where 12 convicted and two indicted Class-A war criminals are enshrined have been made without fuss because he considered those visits necessary not to offend his neighbours but to encourage resurgent Japanese nationalism that has been suppressed for too long by what he believed to be imposed pacifism that is no longer consistent with Japan’s future when there is so much tension in the Korean Peninsula because of North Korea and her nuclear threat.
The US$ 10 billion fund evolved last year for helping the least developed countries has been another positive Koizumi initiative.
How will history assess Koizumi? There are conflicting views. The majority view though is positive. He used his good looks and charismatic charm to cast spell upon his people who found in him the star appeal that Japanese politicians are known not to have. His reforms of the economy have set to motion many positive forces but it will take time to see the overall results. Also, the results will depend upon his successor’s will to pursue the reforms.
However, there are a few undeniable facts in favour of Koizumi. The mountain of bad debts at the banks has shrunk and the Nikkei stock exchange has swelled. The Japanese economy, after years of deflation and stagnation, is showing signs of sustainable recovery. His emphasis in breaking down the nexus among the politicians, bureaucracy and the private sector has been welcomed by his countrymen. Similarly, his trinity of reform package to decentralise the financial powers from the sentre to the local governments; steps to reduce public spending and reforms aimed at deregulating industries have also been well received.
Koizumi’s reforms have been directed towards taking power away from the politicians and the bureaucrats who between them have sustained a system where both have benefited greatly in receiving financial benefits and related perks from the private sector. Last year, when his Postal Privatisation Bills were defeated in the upper house of parliament, Koizumi immediately dissolved parliament that he did not have to as losing a bill in upper house was not a test of confidence. His onetime mentor, former prime minister Mori, had advised him against the decision and for a brief period, there was talk in Tokyo that Koizumi’s decision would bring the end of the LDP’s almost stranglehold on power. Koizumi fought that election almost single-handedly, a fight that was as much with the opposition as was with members of his own party who opposed him on the Postal Privatisation Bill. He ensured that all the opponents in his party were just not thrown from the LDP, but that they also did not return to the parliament individually. He ensured both by nominating against the “postal rebels” the best LDP candidates and himself campaigned with the voters to defeat them. By appealing to the people directly with his charisma, Koizumi won for the LDP a 2/3rd majority that was a gamble that Koizumi alone could take and a miracle that he alone could achieve.
In foreign affairs, his supporters will speak in glowing terms for he gave Japan new assertiveness against his predecessors’ timid initiatives.
Koizumi has critics nevertheless. He will be criticised for his authoritarian manner where he has dealt with opposition ruthlessly and mercilessly. Koizumi will also be criticised for his over-zealousness on reforms while paying too little attention on Japanese society and its problems such as her aging and declining population, the needs of social security nets, etc. Minoru Morita, an elder journalist of Japan and a well known Koizumi critic, says this of his administration: ‘The Koizumi administration was the worst possible for the Japanese people. In terms of foreign diplomacy, it worsened relations with neighbouring countries, while domestically it spawned severe disparities within society. A small number of people reaped benefits. The great majority, however, suffered considerable disadvantage and lost hope.’ Morita credits Koizumi or creating a new class called ‘freeters’ who he describes as ‘hordes of directionless young workers who drift from one low-paid job to another without gaining marketable skills’.
Koizumi, his critics will also say, has destroyed the old Japan, its paternalistic political order in particular but he has failed to bring a consensus among the Japanese who, while giving him the best approval rating of 50% among Japan’s long serving prime ministers, also acknowledge that he has shaken up Japan and in that, he has destroyed both the bad and the good of that Japan. Hence they fear that there could be a backlash to his reforms.
Japan’s failure to win the permanent seat in the UN Security Council because of her hasty decision to join the G4 Group will no doubt be seen by critics as a failure of Japan’s foreign policy under Koizumi’s watch who will likewise criticize Koizumi for bringing Japan’ relations with China to an all-time low.
Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, has vowed to continue with the reforms. Abe has shared a lot of the Koizumi vision as the LDP secretary-general (2003) and later as chief cabinet secretary (2005). However, Koizumi has been the reformer willing to bet his future and his party’s on both instincts and beliefs. He did not hesitate in reducing wasteful public expenditures that have traditionally won the LDP votes across the country. It is unlikely Abe will be a reformer in the Koizumi mould. Koizumi has also been immensely lucky as was the case with his decision to dispatch SDF forces to Iraq where a few deaths would have been disaster for him. In Iraq where all countries who dispatched troops have lost some of them, Japan was the lucky country whose troops returned unharmed and the benefit of that luck has gone entirely all to Koizumi.
Japan after Koizumi will continue to remain the world’s second biggest economy, perhaps achieve more economic miracles but the nearly 5 years and five months of flamboyance and focus that Japan enjoyed under Koizumi’s tenure will take some efforts, luck, and a host of other factors to achieve again. Tanaka, the Foreign Minister he once sacked, called him a weirdo, others have called him a maverick but in the end when he leaves, he will be loved by many more people than will criticise him because politicians like Koizumi come upon a people at very large intervals. Abe will become Prime Minister without any past ministerial experience but great family connections and may eventually make a very good prime minister but Japan and the world will be poorer without Koizumi.
The writer is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan. He can be reached at Serajul_islam@uignet.com