Reformist leader in conformist Japan

Slated to become prime minister this week, Koizumi wins in spite of sticking out from the crowd.

Junichiro Koizumi is a rebel with a cause, and in conformity-conscious Japan, that makes him the most unlikely choice to lead this nation in decades.

Mr. Koizumi was elected as the leader of Japan's largest political party yesterday - paving the way for him to be made prime minister later this week.

In a country that has watched a succession of prime ministers fail over the past decade to revive the world's second largest economy, Koizumi brings what many consider a refreshing and unusual approach to the job.

"He's pretty eccentric. He's not the typical politician of Nagatacho," says Liberal Democratic Party member Hakubun Shimomura, referring to Japan's Capitol Hill. "When all the politicians were heading off after meetings to dinner at a ryotei [fancy restaurant], he ... would go home to listen to classical music by himself. He was kind of the Koizumi, who is also fond of heavy metal music, movies, plays, and Kabuki (a renowned theatrical art form), may be one of most dramatic personalities ever to hit the Japanese political stage. Now, many are waiting to see whether he can produce the program for Japan he has been billing for years. Some observers wonder whether this divorce of almost two decades is too much of a political loner, too. Japanese media yesterday mused over what it would be like to have a bachelor for a premier, without a first lady to "smooth things over" in difficult diplomatic situations.

Appealing to younger people

Koizumi seems to speak with a certain directness that is unusual in Japanese, where most messages are couched in many layers of etiquette. Two young men in suits having lunch outside their company headquarters said that although they no longer voted LDP, they were glad to see Koizumi as the country's new leader. "I have the impression that he's really different from the others. He talks straight. But I'm not sure he's going to stay different once he actually becomes prime minster," says Kasunomi Kobayashi, who works for a construction company - a sector that will likely suffer cutbacks under Koizumi.

Koizumi's independence and uncommonly brazen attacks on his own party's failure to deal with Japan's political and economic problems are what earned him the respect of many younger politicians and ordinary LDP members. But now he will be challenged more than ever to cooperate with rival party factions and mend fences ahead of parliament's upper-house elections in July, when the LDP is predicted to suffer steep losses.

Koizumi broke ranks with party protocol by offering himself as an independent candidate, snubbing a long entrenched faction system in which only a few select kingmakers decide who gets to be the star of the show. He ran for president of the LDP in 1995 and 1998 and failed, making his victory this time a surprise.

The man whose straight talk and roguish good looks helped him develop a maverick image has already spent two decades in politics. Since being elected to the Diet in 1972, he has been his voters' choice in 10 consecutive elections. Like many Japanese politicians, Koizumi, the father of two sons, is himself the son and grandson of politicians. He wrote four reform-minded books, including "Reason to Reassemble the Bureaucracy Kingdom."

Koizumi has served in two cabinet posts, becoming minister of post and communications in 1992 and minister for health and welfare in 1996. But colleagues say that even as he rose through the system, he always seemed to be scoffing at its rules and rituals.

Taro Kono, a young LDP Diet member and the son of foreign minister Yohei Kono, worked with Koizumi on a crusade to require that all genetically modified foods carry labels to warn consumers. Kono says that Koizumi, then the minister of Heath and Welfare, got fed up with bureaucrats who ignored requests to investigate the issue. "Of course the bureaucrats ignored it, and when he found that out, he got really mad at them, took them off the job, and became the adviser to our study group," says Mr. Kono.

"He was really going out of his way to support us, in a different style than what we've seen before," says Kono. "He stands for a sort of freshness, and I think he will be a great leader."

On the one hand, Koizumi's renegade behavior gained him great support among lower-ranking LDP members, allowing him to trounce the favored candidate from the party's largest political faction: former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. But Koizumi is already under pressure to give out cabinet positions to people who have supported him.

These include Shizuka Kamei, who bowed out of the race at the last minute in a nod to Koizumi's burgeoning popularity. But Kamei supports more short-term spending, such as massive construction projects, as a way to prime Japan's economic pump - a sharp contrast to Koizumi's aggressive plans to pursue restructuring and resolve Japan's debt problem, even if it means layoffs and bankruptcies.

Cabinet construction

Party members who have been behind Koizumi, however, say that the worst thing he can do is play politics as usual with cabinet postings.

"By criticizing the LDP so sharply, I think he won the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file party members," says Katsuei Hirasawa, an LDP Diet member who has also rejected the faction system. "But please, don't forget what you were elected to do," admonishes Mr. Hirasawa, speaking on the eve of the election. "Koizumi will go through a very rough test. I don't want this to just be a boom, a spark that burns out. He has to prove that he is genuine."

Koizumi, talking to reporters yesterday after it was announced that he had swept up 298 votes out of a possible 484 - eclipsing Mr. Hashimoto's 155 and 31 for Taro Aso - said he would not treat his distribution of cabinet positions as payback time. He also suggests that he will turn to the private sector for advisers, possibly for cabinet positions normally reserved for party loyals.

"I want to appoint the right people in the right posts without being hindered by factions," says Koizumi, who stayed true to his unconventional yet acceptable persona by arriving for his big day in a nearly-neon green tie. "The election was held under very strict criticism of the party.... and I am prepared to do my best to show that LDP can gain people's trust," he says.

Party pressure

But Koizumi is already being lobbied to hand out positions as a way to repair relations between factions in the LDP, in order try to present a unified party image ahead of the upper-house elections. And many here say his plans for economic reform - which have so far concentrated on privatizing state industries such as the postal service and telecommunications sectors - will need to be fleshed out by policy heavy hitters.

"He's quite independent and straightforward, but he's very poor at the maneuvering and behind-the-scenes politics," says Yasunari Sone, a professor of politics at Keio University, where Koizumi graduated with a degree in economics. "Koizumi cannot do the job of reform by himself. He will try to solve things with ideas from outside the party.

"But if Koizumi cannot change the system, people will be very disappointed," Mr. Sone adds. If he compromises with Kamei, that will damage his popularity because it's against his whole mindset."

Koizumi's challenges, other politicians say, have just begun.

"There will be a lot of hurdles in industry to everything he wants to do, so it will not be easy," says Isamu Ueda, a Diet member in the Komeito Party, a Buddhist-backed group that is a coalition partner of the LDP. "I would say that this election was very emotional and not exactly a selection of different alternative policies."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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