Koizumi's revolution gains momentum

The Japanese leader's huge mandate will shape politics and defense.

Junichiro Koizumi may not be the last samurai. But after his party scored the biggest supermajority in Japan's postwar history, Mr. Koizumi has emerged as a kind of strong leader rarely seen here - staying in office far longer than the previous 10 prime ministers, waking the imagination of young voters, and consolidating personal power and a national consensus in order to change Japan's self-image and its Constitution, in ways no one imagined a month ago.

No one, including Mr. Koizumi, predicted the snap election landslide of Sept. 11. Yet it now appears to be the first real "coming out" of a Koizumi-led revolution, one born of frustration and pride, that's been under way for several years. If it continues, old-style factional Japanese politics will alter, a more assertive genera- tion of younger Japanese leaders may emerge, and the ripples of a more-robust Japan will be felt in Asia and the US, many experts say.

"There is a feeling in the air that things are changing - but also an awareness that difficulties are huge," says Ben Dorman, of the Nanzan Institute in Nagoya.

A special multiparty Diet committee to discuss the constitution, was established last week. Officials have indicated they expect to move quickly on Article 9, which bans the use of force and disallows an official navy or army and has been a fundamental part of Japanese identitysince the constitution was adopted in 1947.

Even talk about changing Article 9 used to seem subversive - a betrayal of pacifist values adopted after World War II. Now, with Japan sending troops to Iraq,polls show that 94 percent of Koizumi's newly constructed party is ready to scrap or revise it. Koizumi is such a force to be reckoned with that even Seiji Maehara, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) said Sept. 27 that, "it is nonsense to label those as hawks or militarists" who want to change Article 9.

"I never thought I would see Article 9 changed in my lifetime," says a Western diplomat.

"Koizumi's standing is so strong right now," says a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo. "The Chinese and Koreans can only watch as he gains mobility and authority. I think they are concerned he will go to the [Yasukuni war memorial] shrine and this will create more problems. But I think he will go, eventually. He is a stubborn fellow."

Neighbors watching closely

The changes in attitude in Tokyo have caused many of Japan's neighbors to question what they see as a new kind of nationalism among the Japanese. "It is not certain whether the Japanese leaders are driving their country toward right-wing conservatism," noted a Korean Herald editorial last week, "or if [this] is just the product of nationalistic trends."

The elections have given Koizumi a formidable mandate. Koizumi turned a four-seat deficit into a 90-seat advantage in he Diet's Lower House. His ruling coalition - with the New Komeito Party - gives him 327 seats, more than two-thirds of the Lower House. In Japan's eight largest metro areas, Koizumi's style and appeal for change were decisive; he won them all. The DPJ, with its malaise-filled message of "Japan: Don't Give Up," never took.

To be sure, the central election issue was postal reform, not national pride or Article 9. The postal system is also the world's largest savings bank, and Koizumi has long tried to break it up and hold it accountable. The old-guard opposition to postal reforms in Koizumi's own party, in fact, was used by the prime minister to maneuver them out of the LDP and allow him to shape his own new agenda and base.

Yet while postal reforms were the proximate issue, the real meaning of the vote, experts say, was to legitimize a nationalist feeling of pride, while making voters feel that Japan's future is secure, despite sharing a dangerous neighborhood with North Korea and a rising China.

"Koizumi has managed to show he is the man who will lead Japan into something better, a new kind of nation," says the Western diplomat.

Yet there's also worry on the street that Koizumi has promised too much, and that expectations for reform are now too high.

The postal reforms themselves, for example, may not take hold until 2017. Koizumi never addressed the huge windfall profits now accruing from interest on the bank holdings. Areas of structural crisis in Japan, from pensions to social security, have been left unmentioned in a move toward image-driven elections - where Koizumi theatrically unleashed "assassin" politicians on his opponents, and adopted a tieless new "cool biz" style.

Facing brass tacks

The storm and lightning in the elections don't mean structural issues will be faced, says Japan expert Brad Glosserman of the Pacific CSIS in Honolulu. "Japan goes boldly - backward?" is the question he's asking in the election aftermath.

The new strength of China has often distracted the world outside of Asia from noting the significant changes in Japan, experts point out. But not in Asia itself.

Currently, China and Japan are in a serious tussle over regional dominance.

This includes problems over the definition and boundary of drillable oil and gas in the ocean waters between them. In the days before the Japanese election, in fact, five Chinese navy ships were sent to cruise disputed waters near the East China Sea.

"The danger ahead is the momentum that an increasingly strong, bold, nationalistic premier would add to what seems like a ... possible collision course between China and Japan as they vie [to be] East Asia's preeminent power," writes Yoichi Funabashi, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Japan-US relations are also likely to shift, experts say. Tokyo will continue to see its best security options in Asia in maintaining close ties with the US.

The problem of a nuclear North Korea, and a possible crisis over Taiwan, means that Japan will continue to value military relations with America. But Japan will likely wish to change the relationship to one of greater mutual dependence, where each side is acknowledging the importance of the other.

Whether Koizumi will stay in office to oversee a new style Japanese politics is unclear. According to LDP party rules, his term ends next September.

Koizumi has vowed to step down. However, as one political wag puts it, not a single modern leader of a major country has stepped down from office without there being a constitutional requirement to do so.

Postal reform

Legislation introduced this week would change Japan's postal system. The process is set to begin in late 2007 and would conclude by 2017.

• Japan Post's delivery, insurance, and savings-deposit services will be split up and sold off within 10 years.

• After the sale, the 330 trillion yen ($3 trillion) in holdings would be placed in private hands.

• The former postal service would become the world's largest private bank.

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