Japan needs more of Koizumi's magic

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2008, 12:00am

I wish more people understood Japan better. I wish I understood Japan better. It's not that Japanese people are so utterly inscrutable: that's almost a racist proposition. And it's an essentially silly one.

Understanding Japan, however we come to understand it, is vitally important. The country remains a global economic powerhouse, and its exceptional culture of literature and movies has injected deep roots into humanity's consciousness. We should never forget, either, that Japan is the only nation on which nuclear weapons have been dropped. What's more, its foreign policy is adjusting to new circumstances, however slowly, as China rises and the west comes to terms with this obvious reality.

Underestimating Japan, as China's rise proceeds apace, would be a huge mistake. A recent story in The New York Times reported a surge in Americans buying smaller cars that offer notably superior fuel economy. The story pictured three models as the leaders: two were Japanese. Of course.

It's almost as if Japan Inc rolls on even as its political establishment nearly comes to a dead stop. Such disconnects - between an economic powerhouse and a political midget - add up to an almost perfect storm. Virtually all observers agree, therefore, that Japan is getting ready to install a new prime minister - once again. The New York-based Oriental Economist concludes: 'Yasuo Fukuda's days as prime minister are numbered. His clumsy handling of both the Bank of Japan transition and the gasoline tax has sealed his fate. This is partly because his missteps come at a crucial time for the Japanese economy, and partly because his repeated miscalculations and gaffes show he is simply not up to the job.'

There's another reason for Mr Fukuda's decline. It's that he is not - remotely - Junichiro Koizumi, the most recently successful Japanese prime minister. Before he niftily departed in 2006, Mr Koizumi set a new high standard for public expectations of what makes a first-rate prime minister. Telegenic looks are essential; Mr Fukuda projects the image of every tired, ineffectual and miscast prime minister ever inflicted on the proud and needy Japanese.

For the rest of the world, Japan is easier to do business with when its leader knows what he is doing. Mr Koizumi sought to resculpture the interior of the Japanese economy. His big economic fixation was to privatise the leathered Japanese postal service. Now, more of the same elsewhere in the economy is seen as just the tonic the country needs. And more people are looking for Mr Koizumi to sprinkle the last of his political magic.

You have to believe that he is too smart to want a second run as prime minister, when his legacy is already secure. But he can work behind the scenes to create a new political coalition that could serve as a true force for change.

Mr Koizumi shook up the Liberal Democratic Party. Now, he may just have enough clout to bring a 'third force' into Japan's calcified politics. May he give it his best shot.

Tom Plate, a Pacific Council on International Policy member, teaches Asian politics and media at the University of California, Los Angeles