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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005

Koizumi must now master global politics


LOS ANGELES -- I met Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi two years ago for a fascinating interview. I recall slightly pressing him on the touchy question of whether Japan would actually overcome its restrictive pacifist Constitution (a significant legacy of the U.S. Occupation) and dispatch troops to Iraq, which would prove a symbolic and groundbreaking move. Many doubted that Japan would ever do this, but Koizumi insisted to me that he would.

And he did. Japan sent troops.

Whatever the wisdom of the Iraq occupation or Japan's contribution, Koizumi stands as one political leader who does what he says he will do, at least on major issues. Last month, for example, Koizumi threatened to dissolve the Lower House of Parliament and take his reform program to the country if the Diet voted down his government's legislation on postal reform, a key measure.

It did -- and so he did.

The results of this weekend's snap election are nothing short of astonishing. Japan's voters, who usually speak with reserved and demure whispers, this time roared. They gave their prime minister, now in office four years, the strongest mandate for political change since World War II.

It is a roar that needs to be heard around the world.

It is hard for outsiders to grasp the full intricacies of the Japanese political system. But the election was fundamentally a plebiscite on urban-driven reform. The genius of Koizumi is that he attained this unprecedented reform mandate via the vehicle of the Liberal Democratic Party, of which he is president. For more than a half century, rather than being an agent of change, the LDP has consistently short-changed real reform.

Incredibly, Koizumi destroyed part of the core of the antireform LDP in order to transform the party into a potential and credible instrument of forward-looking government. Most of those who opposed the core of his program are now out of power; the party he leads now sports an outright majority in the powerful Lower House for the first time in 15 years.

And this is the infamous LDP -- the party that persistently opposed reform by protecting farmers from all sorts of lower-priced imports, from beef to oranges, maintained a massive tax on rice imports, nitpicked (characteristically and illustratively) Singapore's trade negotiators to a near-death experience when the latter proposed to open up their mutual agricultural markets, and has for decades overloaded the countryside with useless roads and bridges to nowhere.

And yet Koizumi had repackaged this dinosaur of a party as the champion of reform, beating the opposition so badly that the LDP victory became a complete landslide. The man himself, now nearly all-powerful, sometimes known in his beloved Japan as "Lion Heart," but in American terms perhaps better characterized as a "riverboat gambler," maintains he will step down next year.

But a year can prove a long time in politics, and much can be accomplished. While Koizumi has demonstrated that he is a masterful domestic politician, history's judgment is still to be rendered on his performance as a world statesman.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan had offered a comparably more sophisticated and neighborly Asian policy. But Koizumi considerably diminished any talk of foreign policy. He ran against the Democrats on a Bill Clinton-like platform of "it's economic reform, stupid." He had gauged the voters' mood magically.

But now, like Clinton in his second term, Koizumi needs to turn to foreign affairs and work some magic there. At least he needs to make a better effort. In East Asia Koizumi is not popular, certainly not with the Chinese or the Koreans.

Getting along with one's neighbors is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Without seeming to kowtow to China, this brilliant politician must work more closely with China on key bilateral and regional issues, including North Korea and Taiwan. China is not always right in its disagreements with Japan, nor is South Korea. But Koizumi needs to do a better job at advancing Japan's international interests through negotiation, at least as well as he has in its domestic political arena.

Koizumi has transformed the once-minimalist prime minister position into something more akin to a presidential job. But with this transformation comes the requirement to act more presidential than political in those areas affecting relations with other states. Even if Koizumi only stays on for another year, it will be by this last stretch run that history will make its final judgment on his quality and contribution.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a UCLA professor.
Copyright Tom Plate, 2005.


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