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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Koizumi still Japan's best hope

The publicity given to the quarreling between members of the Japanese Cabinet, including accusations of lying, the resignation of the minister of agriculture and the difficulty Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apparently had in finding a suitable successor suggest that his government cannot last much longer.

The knives are out for him in the Liberal Democratic Party, with many of the factions openly hostile. Koizumi's popularity has fallen, with public opinion divided on his declared support for the Americans and the British in the Iraq war. His reform program seems to have been more rhetoric than substance. Political reform, including effective rules to limit money politics, end factionalism and rebalance the electoral system to equalize the value of urban and rural votes, looks just as remote as it has ever been. It would, however, be a mistake to write off Koizumi, and any putative successor could be much worse for Japan.

In addition to the right to decide on the date of a general election, Koizumi still has a number of advantages. The opposition parties remain disunited and feeble, and have limited support among voters. Within the LDP there are a number of politicians ambitious to take Koizumi's job, but none of them have charisma or policies with any real appeal to the electorate as a whole.

It has been suggested that Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro sees himself as an alternative, but he is not a member of the Diet. Even if this problem could be overcome, it is doubtful whether he could win over a sufficient number of members of the LDP and opposition party conservatives to enable him to command a majority. He is also over 70, and his form of nationalism would, at the very least, complicate Japan's foreign affairs and could be damaging to the future of democracy in Japan.

So perhaps Koizumi will last a bit longer. Reforms will continue to be emasculated by the politicians and bureaucrats concerned. The Japanese economy will drift along and crises will be avoided by half measures and disguised hand outs. This is hardly an attractive scenario, but in the present difficult and dangerous international scene, Koizumi's survival as prime minister is probably desirable for Japan. His support for the Americans and the British in Iraq has not brought him popularity at home but it has been welcomed by the Americans.

The threat from Pyongyang remains Japan's most important foreign-policy concern. North Korea has dangerous missiles and the potential to produce atomic weapons. But an attempt to deal with North Korea on the lines of the American attack on Iraq could be disastrous for both Japan and South Korea.

On the other hand, it is hard to see how a meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang can be achieved without giving in to North Korean blackmail. Every effort must, however, be made to achieve a peaceful solution. This means bringing all possible pressure short of war on the North Korean regime to not only give up its attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but also to accept U.N. controls on its missile program and its exports of arms. It is going to be vital to fully involve the Chinese in this process and to make maximum use of the apparatus of the United Nations, including the Security Council.

U.S. anger over the failure of the Security Council to back it over Iraq is likely to make the Americans hesitant about involving the U.N., while countries such as France, Russia and China will not want to allow the U.N. to become or seem to be a tool of American policy. Japan, South Korea and their friends will need to work hard to persuade the hawks in the Bush administration to accept that the Security Council must be central to any solution.

U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" is a most unfortunate expression lumping three totally different regimes under one umbrella, included Iran -- in which Japan has significant interests. The Americans have some justification for concern about Iranian development of nuclear weapons and about the nature of the Islamic regime in that country. But Iran is not the same as Iraq. There are moderate elements that have not yet given up. There is, of course, a danger that supporting them too openly would play into the hands of the extremists, but we have not yet reached the point where dialogue and engagement have failed. It is to be hoped that Koizumi's government will exercise a restraining influence in Washington over Iran as well as over North Korea. Every effort should be made to keep the U.S. hawks in check.

In foreign affairs, Koizumi, if he is to work effectively for peace, needs to eschew any pandering to rightwing nationalists. This means in particular that he should refrain from paying another visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Such visits inevitably arouse fear and suspicion in Korea and China, which suffered from the actions of the Japanese military, and can only complicate the difficulties in finding a solution to the threats posed by Pyongyang.

At home, if Koizumi is to retain power his first priority should be political reform. This will be very difficult as such reforms must challenge the power bases of his leading rivals in the LDP. But unless he tackles political reform, he will never succeed in achieving the economic reforms that Japan so much needs.

Koizumi no doubt realizes that if he launches a substantial reform plan it could break up the LDP, but he could always call an election on his political reform proposals, which, if wisely framed, could win overwhelming public support. If he does not take such a bold initiative soon, he will be pushed out by the LDP's old guard. Japan will then be set for a further period of stagnation.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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