Is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a great reformer who will pull Japan out of its decade-long economic slump and lead the country to its rightful place among the world's leading nations, or is he just an old-fashioned politician with an unconventional hairdo?
It is an important question, as President Bush prepares to welcome him to Camp David June 30 for a get-acquainted session.
Mr. Koizumi is Japan's most-popular prime minister ever, with an overwhelming 85 percent approval rating. The Japanese desperately want to believe he is a true leader, unlike most previous prime ministers. They know Japan must restructure its economy and cut government waste and bank debt, both for domestic growth and to help regain dignity on the international stage. But can Koizumi deliver on his promises?
Even if he can, are Japan and the world ready for the changes he proposes?
In his first weeks in office, Koizumi has made waves with bold and sometimes controversial proposals. He recommended that Japan eliminate Article 9 of its Constitution, in which Japan renounces the right to go to war, and he approved textbooks that whitewash Japan's militarist past. He promised to cut the national debt, pressure banks to write off bad loans, and eliminate wasteful public works projects. He backed legislation to allow women to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne, and appointed the most diverse cabinet ever, including five women.
These actions, which pander both to the party's right-wing supporters and urban voters, will help the ruling Liberal Democratic Party survive the upper- house elections July 29 and strengthen Koizumi's position. But what then? Nobody knows exactly where he will focus his attention. His proposals will take a long time to implement, and his actions will be sharply constrained by the powerful LDP old guard, who are supported by construction companies and others who oppose change.
Koizumi's nationalist tendencies are disturbing, to be sure. The decision to approve the revisionist textbooks shows a lack of understanding of other Asian nations' deep anger over Japan's unwillingness to fess up to its war responsibilities. But one should not get ruffled about his proposal to provide legal backing to Japan's military by eliminating Article 9. As Koizumi himself points out, Japan already has a huge military. In fact, getting rid of Article 9 is a necessary step for Japan to become a nation responsible for its own defense rather than completely relying on the United States.
In reality, Koizumi will probably never get the votes for constitutional revision. Meanwhile, he is asking parliament to reinterpret Article 9 in ways that would allow Japan's Self Defense Forces to participate in "collective self-defense." This would allow Japanese troops to assist US forces defending Japan and protect the US from missile attack, for example, from North Korea. Koizumi also supports lifting restrictions on Japanese peacekeeping forces to allow gun-toting Japanese troops to actively participate in core UN peacekeeping operations.
In the economic arena, Koizumi is trying to make people realize they have made a devil's bargain by accepting economic stagnation in exchange for social stability, predictability, and order.
The Japanese government has spent over a trillion dollars in the past decade shoring up failing banks and building unnecessary roads and bridges to maintain employment. Its finances were once the envy of the world. Today, Japan's national debt is the highest in the industrialized world as a proportion of the national economy. The International Monetary Fund estimates bad loans held by Japanese banks amount to nearly $800 billion.
Many economists believe Koizumi's proposal to limit government spending and force banks to write off bad loans within three years will be too much for the country. However, the Japanese will only accept fundamental change if they experience much more economic pain. Anything that moves Japan toward a market-oriented system that accepts winners and losers and rewards risk takers will be a positive change. However, Koizumi must resist ill-conceived plans by the Ministry of Finance to raise the national sales tax, which will only drag down the world's second-largest economy.
For all his shortcomings, Koizumi is at least taking on issues that have long been taboo. Americans should welcome his efforts to be more assertive. Japan must determine its own foreign-policy interests before it can rise above narrow self-interest and become a responsible member of the global community. That will take time.
If the US wants a true partner to stabilize the Pacific region, it needs to support a more independent Japan. The current crisis may be the best opportunity yet to encourage the Japanese people to accept a new political-economic system, one that contributes to the international community and economic growth.
Marie Anchordoguy is chair of the Japan Studies Program at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. She travels to Japan once or twice a year.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor