WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan likes to think he's George Bush's second-best friend among the leaders of Western democracies - second only to Tony Blair of Britain.
But despite his dashing style and popularity on the streets, he still has an uphill battle winning Japan the leadership role in Asia and the world that he craves. While Washington finds Mr. Koizumi a supportive ally and wants Japan to loom larger whether at the UN or in relations with China or North Korea, his obstacles are almost entirely domestic.
When they meet Thursday in Tokyo, Koizumi is expected to promise Bush up to $1 billion a year for Iraq's reconstruction over the next five years. Japan may also send up to 2,000 Self- Defense Forces personnel, the first units arriving before the end of the year. Koizumi's hawkish defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, has said that Japan needs to be involved in Iraq not just to support the US, but because the oil route from the Gulf is Japan's own lifeline. However, Japanese troops will be used only in noncombat positions, because the Japanese Constitution doesn't permit combat except in self-defense.
Recent polls show Koizumi enjoys a 65 percent popularity rating - an upsurge he'll likely cash in on in parliamentary elections he has just called for Nov. 9.
But this is where the first domestic obstacle to Japan's enhanced world role kicks in. Koizumi is personally popular, with his charm with women, and his long hair that has won him the nickname of "Lion." But the Iraq war is no more popular in Japan than it is in Europe, and despite his defense minister's remarks, Koizumi's commitment to Iraq is largely motivated by his personal ties with Mr. Bush. He'll have to soft-pedal Japan's Iraq role and send no troops until the election is safely won. Most observers still expect a Koizumi victory despite an opposition newly energized by the merger of two major parties.
The second domestic obstacle is the paradox that in both his recent Cabinet appointments and in the election he faces, the opposition to the prime minister comes not only from the opposition parties, but from the long-entrenched bosses of his own Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) - what Koizumi calls the "resistance forces" that want to derail his plans for far-reaching structural reforms. These reforms, if carried out, will cut the cozy ties that link special interests such as farmers, shopkeepers, and the construction industry to local LDP bosses.
Much of the popularity the prime minister enjoys comes from his defiance of these special interests and their corrupt practices. But the very politicians who indulge these practices keep their lips sealed during elections, hoping that once the voters have expressed themselves, they'll go back to sleep. Koizumi insists that, after two years of bold talk but little action, he means business.
His reappointment of Heizo Takenaka as minister in charge both of the economy and of supervising banks was carried out in the teeth of vociferous opposition from the party bosses, which suggests his continuing commitment to long-stalled reforms such as the privatization of the post office and its enormous pile of savings accounts.
"Despite severe economic conditions," Koizumi said recently, "the sprouts of structural reform have finally begun to appear. Now we must grow them into a big tree."
More like a matinee idol than a typical Japanese politician, Koizumi attracts huge crowds wherever he goes. But he's also a loner, whose idea of relaxation is to shut himself in his study with jazz or opera going full blast. On the stump, his fresh, pithy remarks appeal to voters bored with the usual rhetoric. But he has not built effective alliances or developed a core of younger politicians to be mobilized systematically on his behalf.
He still has nearly three years in which to turn around Japan's economy and raise its international stature. But if he can't win solid control of his party fairly soon, his place in history as a Blair-like leader who rescued his country from economic crisis and the hostility of its neighbors is far from assured.
• Takashi Oka is a former longtime foreign correspondent for the Monitor. In recent years, he has occasionally worked as a political consultant to the Japanese opposition Liberal Party.