Exit Koizumi, Japan's Relentless Jedi Knight

By Anthony Faiola
Sunday, September 24, 2006


In Japan, the wa surrounds you. You can feel it in the priciest sushi bars and lowliest noodle parlors. Call it the particular Japanese way of looking at the world; of harmony, of collectiveness with a do-not-rock-the-boat spirit. In the mythology of "Star Wars" movies, the wa is like the Force. To mess with the wa is a cardinal sin.

Junichiro Koizumi messed with the wa .

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the man who will exit the political stage next week as Japan's most important postwar prime minister is that when he messed with the wa , most Japanese discovered a shocking truth: Maybe the wa needed to be messed with.

In his 5 1/2 years in office, Japan's modern samurai took his light saber to practically every national taboo. He cut through the country's notorious bureaucratic fat, forcing passage of legislation to reduce government payrolls and curb the wasteful spending that had left post-bubble Japan saddled with bridges to nowhere and highways dead-ending in unpopulated grasslands. Where his predecessors had used pork-barrel spending in vain attempts to drag the nation out of its decade-long recession, Koizumi instead turned to market forces -- delivering what is now on track to become Japan's longest period of economic growth since the end of World War II.

When China's looming emergence as a superpower began to cast a long shadow over Japan -- a country many Asia experts dismissed a few years ago as rising only in its irrelevance -- Koizumi charted a new course for a bolder nation. He dispatched non-combat troops to Iraq in Japan's largest military-related operation in six decades, launched Tokyo's first independent spy satellites and fortified the U.S.-Japan alliance to counter Beijing's spreading influence.

He did so with a flair that the Japanese had never before seen in a politician. Yukio Okamoto, Koizumi's former senior adviser on the Middle East, recalled the prime minister's 2003 address to the nation announcing what was then an unpopular decision to dispatch Japan's Self Defense Forces to Iraq. Foreign Ministry bureaucrats had prepared a defensive, almost apologetic speech for Koizumi. But the prime minister tossed it aside and went on live with an impromptu, highly personal discourse of his own.

"Those of us standing around Mr. Koizumi just smiled; it wasn't his words as much as his self-assured body language that convinced the Japanese public," Okamoto told me. "In that sense, Koizumi was able to do more than past prime ministers who just followed public opinion. He influenced it. In other words, he was a leader."

In a country long governed by consensus politics and glacial change, Koizumi's most significant achievement was smashing the body politic itself. He took aim at his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party -- a misnomer for a group of conservative dinosaurs who have ruled Japan for most of the past six decades through backroom agreements and a yakuza-like devotion to a few party bosses. Though Koizumi, 64, sometimes looked like a goof on the world stage -- especially while serenading President Bush with Elvis songs and traipsing around Graceland like a wide-eyed groupie -- he was a ruthless political strategist at home. He slew the reform-resistant LDP bosses like so many Darth Vaders by unceremoniously ejecting them from the party. In the process, he cleared a path for change.

"Koizumi was almost cruel in his political style," said Ichita Yamamoto, part of a new generation of younger LDP legislators. "But that's what we needed -- an unyielding leader beholden to no one."

But mixed in with the new sense of optimism Koizumi brought to the country was a precarious reinvention of Japanese nationalism. He flirted with the Dark Side of the wa , creating a new Japan unfettered by war guilt. His administration backed the new history textbooks' whitewashing of imperial atrocities, and repeatedly did not condemn political statements casting past aggressions in the light of national self-preservation. Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine honoring military dead -- including World War II criminals -- sparked outcries in the countries that suffered most from Japan's wartime actions. The repeat visits created a schism in Tokyo's diplomatic ties with Beijing and Seoul that has left Japan largely friendless in its own neighborhood.

For years, the Chinese, North Koreans and, more recently, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, have unabashedly used anti-Japanese rhetoric for political gain, to stoke their own flames of domestic nationalism and to distract from their own failings. But Koizumi's actions gave Japan's critics a credibility they had long lacked.

He tried to cloak his worship of military spirits, including Gen. Hideki Tojo, as a mystical rite of Shinto -- the main Japanese religion -- that foreigners could never hope to understand. He sought to separate his visits to the shrine from Yasukuni's shocking war museum -- which still defines Pearl Harbor as an act of self defense and blames the 1937 Rape of Nanking on the "cowardice" of Chinese rulers who fled the city. Yet those arguments have seemed artificial, arrogant and even dangerous.

Koizumi's handpicked successor -- Shinzo Abe, who is set to take over the prime minister's post next week -- is viewed as even more hawkish. Abe has vowed to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution, drafted by the conquering Americans after World War II, within five years. That Japan deserves global clout commensurate with its wealth and a military capable of deterring new threats such as a nuclear-armed North Korea is not in doubt. But to move toward that new future with stubborn indignation will doubtlessly create more problems than it solves for Japan.

"I see Koizumi's actions today, his disrespect for the countries in Asia touched by the war, and I wonder if he is the same man I once knew," said Takayoshi Miyagawa, the prime minister's political consultant during his first parliamentary campaigns in the 1970s. "Both Koizumi and Abe have appealed to the people through nationalism, and that is a tactic that I had hoped Japan had grown out of."

On the domestic front, the pivotal question for Japan is whether Koizumi's reforms will be continued by Abe, who holds a far deeper respect for the old guard and has hinted at a more traditional approach toward public spending that could easily undo Koizumi's work. More important, Abe lacks the charisma of Koizumi, whose celebrity style of politics somehow managed to blunt even his worse offenses. For Americans, Koizumi became the first Japanese leader they could pick out of a lineup. Abe, on the other hand, is likely to fade into the background of G-8 photo ops in the same way that staid, dark-suited Japanese prime ministers have for a generation.

If Koizumi's mark on politics is to fade quickly, it will be Japan's loss. A self-described "weirdo" in a world of well-scripted politicians, Koizumi remained popular at home precisely because he broke the rules. In a nation where a famous saying lectures "The nail that sticks out gets hammered," he defied public conventions from the beginning, eschewing the cookie-cutter image of past PMs by rising to power on the back of pop-star good looks, blunt talk and grass-roots support for bold reform. The biggest surprise for Japan was that Koizumi -- the scion of a political family whose father's deathbed wish to him was "Junichiro Koizumi, be victorious" -- did more than win elections. Though the scope of his reforms never quite reached his own grandiose vision, he delivered on far more of his promises than almost anyone -- except Koizumi himself -- had ever expected.

He began almost immediately, beginning a debate within a year to revamp Japan's overfed entity in charge of building highways and roads; a notorious fount of political graft and excessive spending that LDP bigwigs tried desperately to preserve. Koizumi's battle with his own party would dramatically escalate in the following years, coming to a head in the last 18 months of his premiership. The one constant was his uncanny popularity.

Many of Koizumi's peers saw in him a reckless disregard for consensus -- the coda by which virtually all Japanese prime ministers have survived in the decades after World War II. They cited his display of kamikaze politics last September after reform-resistant LDP legislators rebelled against his plan to privatize Japan's gargantuan postal service. Fulfilling his pledge either to change the LDP or destroy it, he shocked the party hierarchy by ejecting the stonewallers from the party, calling snap elections and offering his own head if the people's will did not vindicate his reform crusade at the ballot box.

As the sun was setting on the outskirts of Tokyo last September, Yuriko Saito, a 57-year-old white-gloved wife of an accountant, joined a throng of thousands who braved sheets of rain to watch a hoarse Koizumi take his argument directly to the people. Convinced voters such as Saito went on to deliver Koizumi one of the biggest landslide victories in democratic-era Japan.

Why? Because Koizumi fought with the wa -- and the wa lost.

"Koizumi is the only prime minister we have ever had who has actually done something," Saito said that day. "Frankly, he surprised me."


Anthony Faiola is the Northeast Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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