Japan's leap to be a 'normal' nation

Reform in Japan often moves as slowly as a Noh actor on stage. But not last Sunday. Voters gave a jolt to old-style pork politics and a government-driven economy by giving a hefty mandate to a reformist prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Prepare now for an assertive Japan - as an equal to ally US and foil to China.

Mr. Koizumi, a maverick politician who has rattled his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), called the snap election last month after parliament defeated his plan to privatize the postal service, which is actually the world's largest financial institution with $3 trillion in assets and which has also been used as a campaign war chest for politicians to win votes.

He staked his career on this reform and this election, seeing them as a test of whether Japan's conformist mura ishiki(village mentality) could give way to a spirit of self- reliance and global perspective, driven by a new-style nationalism.

In other words, could Japan become - and be seen as - a "normal" nation, ready to stand up to a bullying China and able to easily deploy forces for peaceful purposes.

The election helped Koizumi purge or neutralize many LDP politicians opposed to reforms. The party has long put survival first, and many critics still doubt Koizumi can really reform Japanese politics radically.

But the fact that the LDP won a clear majority (the second-highest number of seats on record) in the lower house indicates Koizumi was able to tap a silent and usually disaffected group of voters ready for a new Japan. At the least, the election resulted in a record 43 women becoming legislators.

Interestingly, the election came 100 years to the month after the end of the Russian-Japanese War, which signaled the emergence of Japan as a global player. That rise faltered with World War II, and again after Japan's economic bubble burst in 1989. But a recent drive for reform portends a new ascendency for Japan.

Koizumi's audacious courage was surprisingly rewarded by voters in a society that has long seen itself as valuing consensus over individuality. He has backed the Iraq war and talked of altering the American-drafted Constitution to weaken its pacifist commitment. Japan has launched its own spy satellites, and its Navy recently fired on North Korean ships to drive them from Japanese territorial waters. Koizumi also appears ready to confront Chinese warships near contested offshore oil reserves in the East China Sea.

But his focus for now is on economic and political reforms, with a great need for better financing of major pension and healthcare costs, and a need to shift power from Tokyo to local governments. Koizumi also must help create viable opponents; this election crushed most LDP rivals and shattered the main opposition party.

The US should welcome such reforms, which will help the balance of power in Asia. The Japanese, at heart, remain a pacifist people, but one eager for change their leaders long denied. Just as Commodore Matthew Perry and his US warships opened Japan in 1853, and just as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American occupation forced change on Japan, Japanese voters can be rallied to bring about a new reformation.

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