A maverick to shake up Japan
A reformer emerges as the frontrunner for prime minister in a party election Tuesday.
Three out of four candidates in tomorrow's elections for the leadership of Japan's long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are seated in a row, sporting almost identical dark blue suits and conservative ties, their black hair neatly combed into place.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The fourth, Junichiro Koizumi, wears a light-gray suit and lavender tie, capped by a shock of long, wavy, almost unruly salt-and-pepper hair. His appearance only scratches the surface of his willingness to go against the grain of Japan's LDP - and the system that Mr. Koizumi says he is trying to buck by running as an "independent" in tomorrow's party election.
Tuesday's vote, which will pick a party president and effectively, the next prime minister of Japan, pits popularity against party machinery. Observers say this is shaping up as a rare Japanese election whose outcome is not predictable in advance.
"It seems like the earth is shaking," Koizumi told reporters in front of LDP headquarters Saturday night. "I feel that there are great changes afoot both in political circles and among LDP members."
Just over a week ago, Koizumi triggered something of a political earthquake by quitting the LDP faction headed by current Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose single-digit popularity ratings have forced him to agree to step down. In the LDP, a bastion of cookie-cutter politics in which individuality and charisma are rarely the characteristics that catapult a man to the top, loyalty to a faction does. But in the face of criticism that the move was mere posturing, Koizumi vowed. "After the presidential election, I will not return to the factions. And once I am [LDP] president, I will not base the cabinet on factions. I will also stop the habit of changing the cabinet every year."
That practice mimics what is known in the Japanese workplace as jinjiido, in which employees of companies and government bureaucracies take on new jobs or rotate positions. Like spring cleaning, it occurs each April 1, often without regard to merit or whether the new appointee is the best-qualified person for the job.
Politics in Japan works much the same way. Japan has had seven prime ministers in the past 10 years, each of them viewed as replaceable by the party "kingmakers" who put them there. The LDP, which has portrayed itself as Japan's catch-all party for more than half a century, is divided into factions at whose core stands little more than the powerbrokers themselves. Promising politicians are expected to show loyalty to them, rather than to any particular ideological bent.
But Koizumi, the former minister of health and welfare, is trying to reinvent the wheel by seeking support of LDP members without a major faction behind him. He also promises to overhaul the banking system, rid the country of its bad debts, and privatize major state-run agencies such as the postal service.
Same old, same old
To be sure, some of these are promises that voters have been hearing from politicians of all stripes since the country's bubble economy burst more than a decade ago. But more, Koizumi says he will promote to high positions of government young people and women, both of whom tend to be absent from Japanese corridors of power, dominated by men well past the age of retirement. Koizumi has also suggested that he would break the coalition's alliance with the Komeito Party, run by a Buddhist organization that many Japanese mistrust as a incursion of religion into political life. And such a small number of people is responsible for choosing Japan's head of government that Koizumi and other reformers have suggested direct elections of the prime minister.
All of that sounds quite attractive to a younger and slightly gutsier generation of LDP politicians, many of whom are supporting Koizumi's bid for office. But is unclear whether Koizumi's popularity with them and with rank-and-file LDP members across the nation will translate into votes from veteran members of the Diet, or parliament, who will be under pressure to vote in line with their factions.