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Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006
THE ZEIT GIST
End of the Lion
Japan's foreign correspondents pass judgment on the Koizumi era
After decades of stultifyingly boring politics, everybody, it seems, so desperately wanted this narrative to be true that, eventually, it simply was.
Even after it became clear that Koizumi was never going to deliver on many of his promises (meaningful highway reform, imperial succession, constitutional revision, etc.), the Koizumi Myth was virtually impossible to dislodge.
We did our best to point out that his reform record was mixed at best; that he compromised far more often than people seemed to realize; and that his much-heralded snap election was not a demonstration of power but an example of weakness -- he couldn't get his party to do what he wanted any other way. More subtle evaluations of Koizumi's successes and failures tended to get drowned out. "Koizumi the Maverick" made better copy than "Koizumi the Mediocre" and the prime minister benefited enormously from this.
I do not mean to suggest that Koizumi was not an interesting or important politician. He defined an era and he brought a much needed measure of stability and seriousness to his office.
But I suspect history will be a harsher judge of his tenure than the current conventional wisdom which has, I think, been addled by the lovely narrative, yet debatable accuracy, of the Koizumi Myth.
Beyond the bouncy hair, the daft Elvis obsession, jaunty briefings and the whiff of a scandalous personal life, Koizumi's flair for the dramatic, tussles with his sclerotic party colleagues and mysterious bonding with George W. Bush have all made good copy.
But for me, the rise of Koizumi now presents journalists with a new problem, one that is by no means confined to Japan: how to see beyond the vapors of modern, image-saturated presidential-style politics to its real underlying trends.
The language used to describe Koizumi in foreign reports (I'm not excluding my own) features a catalog of stock adjectives: Reformer, renegade, maverick, even revolutionary. Koizumi has added to this lexicon, comparing himself to Galileo and various lone wolves and dead Japanese transgressors.
But Koizumi is a product of the system he is supposedly at war with: A third-generation politician who has spent most of his political life with similar men. Far from destroying the LDP, he has made it stronger and anointed a successor with a conservative wish list that dates back to 1955. How revolutionary can he be?
Will postwar Japan's third-longest-serving prime minister go down in history as the man who "broke the mold of Japanese politics?" Perhaps. But he will also be remembered for privatizing the post office, which won't happen until 2017; presiding over a widening wealth gap, trying to cut gross public debt, which climbed under his tenure; and deeply alienating Japan's biggest trading partner by flaunting history.
What will Abe do for an encore?
An uncertain legacy
His relationship with the local media was highly enlightening. In exchange for fun, special access and "selective" reporting, he avoided personal attacks. Every Italian leader would love to strike this deal. Unlike Berlusconi, Koizumi got it. That's quite an achievement.
Koizumi has been good for Japan's political engine, where the lethargic, corruption-addicted world of Nagatacho badly needed some kind of violent overhauling. However, I am not so sure about his legacy and his ultimate impact on the Japanese people, who needed, and still need, policies that can improve their daily lives. Instead they got flamboyant announcements of "new deals."
A good example is postal reform. I still can't understand why Koizumi put so much effort into privatizing one of the very few impeccable public services still left in the world instead of concentrating on public housing, unemployment, education and social issues. For example, I never heard him expressing concern over the awful suicide rate in Japan, which, according to latest figures, sees a Japanese take his or her own life every 15 minutes.
Most disappointing of all is his foreign policy record, though I appreciate most Japanese "experts" and probably many of my colleagues would disagree with me on this. Far from helping Japan to become what Ozawa termed "futsuu na kuni" ("a normal country"), Koizumi, by blindly supporting U.S. policies, from Iraq to North Korea and -- amazingly -- even on recent Middle East issues, threw away an historic chance for Japan to get back on her feet on the international stage and win some respect.
To me, much more detrimental for the image of Japan than the smartly orchestrated visits to Yasukuni, was his last official visit to the U.S., with all that beef and Elvis stuff. Even Berlusconi avoided such a shameful "lap of honor."
A professional disaster
Richard Lloyd Parry
At first the hook was his obvious "maverick" qualities -- the perm, the love of Elvis -- and his hysterical popularity in the first year (remember the lines of high school girls queuing in front of LDP HQ for "Lion King" mobile phone fobs?).
But he has been a genuinely, rather than just superficially, transforming figure. Koizumi's genius was to realize that the post-1955 political dispensation was a con trick and a bluff -- a set of cozy conventions benefiting an elite, but with no solid basis in law and little support from the public.
Why do Cabinet ministers have to be chosen form the factions? They don't -- and so he didn't. Why is compromise regarded as valuable in itself? It's not, and when Koizumi crushed the "forces of resistance," he was cheered. I simplify, of course (and he did make plenty of compromises), but he demonstrated that a Japanese prime minister can actually lead.
I don't believe that Koizumi is a reactionary, revisionist, neomilitarist. He went to Yasukuni for his own, rather eccentric, personal reasons. Unfortunately the effect has been to liberate and inspire authentic reactionaries, a very nasty bunch who, temporarily at least, are riding high. The question of how serious this turns out to be, and how damaging the rift with China, is one which his successors will answer -- in a sense, it is they who will determine how we will remember Koizumi.
In 10 years time, will he be regarded as a revolutionary, a transitional figure who started the job which others completed -- or just a passing fashion, a curiosity, an aberration?
We shall miss him
One of the first stories I wrote for the Observer was a profile of Koizumi during his early days as leader when, in the eyes of voters and the media, he could do nothing wrong: the heady days of 2001 and 2002 when high school girls queued up at the LDP HQ to buy posters of their hero; an elderly woman threatened to kill herself unless granted a brief audience; and his face appeared on everything from CD cases (his Presley collection) to packets of chewing gum. The adulation could never last but even now he enjoys support levels many other leaders of similar longevity can only dream of.
From a journalist's perspective, he has proved remarkably durable, both as a leader and as the leading character in dozens of articles: serious profiles, his friendship with U.S. President George W. Bush and, yes, his infatuation with Elvis. He is one of very few politicians for whom I would be prepared to wake at a ridiculously unsociable hour just to catch a glimpse of him entering Yasukuni Shrine.
Shinzo Abe has vowed to continue with his predecessor's reforms, but I suspect, much to my professional disappointment, that Koizumi's brand of cuddly populism will die when he leaves office.
Abe may be cut from similar ideological cloth, but it is hard to imagine a more different character. Compare the bombast of Koizumi's recent Yasukuni visit with the approach of his mealy-mouthed heir apparent, who (allegedly) performed the dastardly deed while our backs were turned this spring.
Koizumi is the most media-savvy leader to grace the Japanese political scene since Nakasone. That much should have been clear when, in one of one of his first acts as premier, he invited the TV cameras to follow him into a meeting with former leprosy patients to apologize for decades of state-sanctioned incarceration and discrimination.
In the years that followed, barely a day passed without a short cameo from the Lionheart, his famous mane taking on a more silvery hue as time passed; although unlike Tony Blair, he has aged gracefully.
I was never quite as taken with his appearance as others were. His dress sense is as unadventurous as the next Japanese politician -- Cool Biz notwithstanding -- and he sometimes appears painfully thin. But it is a measure of his force of presence he is instantly recognizable; not just here but around the world, and by people with next to no interest in Japan. How many other Japanese politicians can say the same?
That said, his legacy will be defined by resurgent nationalism in foreign policy and an ill-advised obsession with neoliberal economic policy at home that is already beginning to create a part-time poorly paid underclass of women and young people.
He is an intriguing man and an impressive politician to whom, on a professional level, foreign correspondents should be grateful. His politics, though, are an entirely different matter.
Aided by a media strategy group within the Liberal Democratic Party, the public reception of Koizumi's message was carefully monitored and his topic and tone altered to best influence public perception.
During Koizumi's terms, the media has become a mere tool for propaganda, failing in its responsibility to question and keep the administration in check. The media has continued to report verbatim what Koizumi has said, without offering any analysis or explanation in the context of the country's needs and wants.
Koizumi's huge popularity has allowed him to shape public opinion in exactly the way he would have wished. Four years ago, very few people went to Yasukuni. The number has since tripled.
Japan needs to seriously discuss whether it will continue to allow its leaders, political and media, to communicate with people in such an insincere way.
Raising awareness is the most proper means of communication between a people and its leaders. Current communication levels between the Japanese government and Japanese people are more akin to third-rate PR fluff, lacking any logic or morality. Problems remain hidden and the government seeks only to stimulate demand for the dangerous policies proposed by Shinzo Abe.
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