Koizumi Junichiro

*It’s hard to fathom how they keep doing it.* How those who are defenders of the _status quo_, defenders of power and privilege, can achieve success as ‘reformers’ standing against the same _status quo_ and in favour of ‘change’. They are the champions of the potent myth of ‘small government’. First there were the pioneers Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who made the British forget their ‘disease’ and the Americans ‘feel good about themselves again’. Then there were their children, the Bushes, Berlusconis and far too many others. But one of the most successful and certainly most persistent is the current Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro.

Koizumi, who engineered a brilliant electoral coup in the Japanese lower house elections last year, is one of Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers. He quite bluntly states that he is modelling himself on Thatcher and Reagan. He combines an informal, even casual style with a certain kind of blunt charisma typified by his trademark ‘rock star’ bouffant hair and Hawaiian-style colourful shirts. The mix has proved very potent, standing out amidst the bland, ageing suits that traditionally dominate Japanese politics. Koizumi has used his image to implement a politics that combines regressive Japanese nationalism with a neoliberal subservience to the dictates of Washington. He has worked hard to cultivate a ‘rebel’ image, conveying the illusion that he is running (at least rhetorically) against his own party, the Liberal Democrats (LDP),that have dominated Japanese political life since the Second World War.

‘We destroyed the old LDP,’ Koizumi crowed after winning last September’s election. The irony, of course, was that the LDP won the election. It could not be otherwise and Koizumi knew it. The LDP has a massive brokerage party machine that uses Japan’s retrograde first-past-the-post system to marginalize any opposition. His great _cause célèbre_ in provoking the election was his commitment to privatize Japan’s unusual postal system. The Japanese Post Office is a huge public service bureaucracy that uniquely blends an excellent postal service with a quasi-public banking system that is one of the largest pools of capital in the world. The Post Office holds over two trillion dollars in safe (but unprofitable) savings accounts and another trillion or so in insurance policies. The Japanese are inveterate if conservative savers. This pool of protected capital has long had those who run casino capitalism from the Nikkei to the Dow drooling with anticipation. Washington has been particularly keen that this retrograde backwater of Japanese life be opened up to the winds of free-market deregulation. Koizumi’s desire to get with the programme had been stymied by a scattering of ‘postal rebels’ who defended the old system, which is still very popular in rural and small-town Japan. With 25,000 vulnerable branches and 400,000 nervous workers there was a lot to lose. India, with eight times the population, has only 600,000 postal workers. But Koizumi now appears to have paved the way to privatization – although the final steps aren’t to be implemented until 2017.

But many a Japanese political figure has fallen into disfavour by appearing too pro-Washington. So, while kowtowing to the cowboys in the Bush Administration (even breaking a long-term taboo by sending Japanese troops to help out in Iraq), Koizumi has continued to play the Japanese nationalist card. There is his annual visit to the Yasukini shrine to the imperial war dead – a nationalistic ritual from which previous prime ministers had desisted because it so outraged Japan’s neighbours, particularly the Chinese and Koreans, who bore the worst of the imperial troops’ excesses. Then there is the build-up of the Japanese Defence Force – the military currently has a budget second only to the US – and its extension overseas to co-operate with the US in containing China. Koizumi has also orchestrated a revision of the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education – to ‘restore the stains on Japanese history’ and reinvigorate national honour. Japanese students are now graded every term on their patriotism. So the tilt towards Washington power politics and neoliberalism is masked by a heavy-handed regional chauvinism.

During his terms in office Koizumi has presided over a modest recovery of profits and the Nikkei stock market. But the lifetime security enjoyed through the 1960s and 1970s by Japanese people has more or less disappeared as the manufacturing sector has shed some four million jobs and millions are on – or should be on – social security. Japan under Koizumi has become a nation of freeters (a mixture of the English word ‘free’ with the German word ‘arbeiter’) – workers on poorly paid short-term contracts. It is projected that this kind of contract will encompass 10 million employees by 2014. As the well-off become richer and the disenfranchised are pushed to the wall, suicides have shot up by nearly a third in the last seven years, with middle-aged and elderly males leading the way. For each suicide there are an estimated five attempts.

But Koizumi has been able to skate above most of this social turmoil thanks to the national fascination with his personality and lifestyle – he released a CD of his favourite Elvis songs, for example, and swore off marriage after his own divorce in the 1980s. Two of his three children have never seen their mother since the divorce and the other son has never met Koizumi, despite trying to do so recently at a family funeral. Many Japanese, unused to politicians with flair and a public personality, remain bewitched.

New Internationalist issue 388 magazine cover This article is from the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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