The Houdini of Japan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

You may now call him King Koizumi. I met Japan's reigning 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 US occupation) and send troops to Iraq, which would prove a symbolic and groundbreaking move. Many doubted that Japan would ever do this, but Mr Koizumi insisted to me that he would.

And he did. Japan sent troops.

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

It did - and so he did.

The results of the weekend's snap election are nothing short of astonishing. Japan's voters gave their prime minister the strongest mandate for political change since the second world war.

It is hard for us outsiders to grasp the full intricacies of the Japanese political system. But the election was fundamentally a direct vote on urban-driven reform. The genius of Mr Koizumi is that he attained this unprecedented reform mandate via the Liberal Democratic Party, of which he is president. For more than 50 years, rather than being an agent of change, the LDP has consistently short-changed real reform.

Incredibly, Mr Koizumi destroyed part of the core of the anti-reform 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 programme 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.

Mr 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 characterised 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 Mr 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 neighbourly Asian policy. But this political Houdini of Asia considerably diminished any talk of foreign policy. Now, he needs to turn to foreign affairs and work some magic there. At least he needs to make a better effort. In East Asia, Mr Koizumi is not popular, certainly not with the Chinese or the Koreans.

Getting along with one's neighbours is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Without seeming to kowtow to China, this brilliant politician must work more closely with Beijing on key bilateral and regional issues, including North Korea and Taiwan.

Mr 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. Even if Mr Koizumi only stays on for another year, it will be by this last stretch that history will make its final judgment on his contribution.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre