The Rising East


Sunday, August 5, 2001

Despite impressive election
sweep, talk of a Koizumi
mandate is premature

Expectations have been running high among the Japanese and those Americans concerned with U.S.-Japan relations ever since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi led his party to a stunning victory in parliamentary elections last Sunday. The word "mandate" for the popular and flamboyant Koizumi to do this, that and the other thing seems to have popped up in most assessments.

Maybe so, but let's just wait a minute, please. The prime minister has demonstrated that he is a vote-getter but not much more. He's laid out few real plans to resolve Japan's many problems and has little to show in the way of accomplishment during his admittedly short time in office.

Nor has the vital element of the Japanese political, economic and social order -- consensus -- come anywhere close to forming. In Japan, a basic principle is not to stand on principle but to find compromise and consensus, and that is still a long way off.

In short, Koizumi's time of testing has just begun and the tasks before him are truly daunting.

In the election for the upper house of the Diet, Koizumi's Liberal Democrats won 65 of the 121 seats up for grabs, more than twice the 26 taken by the opposition Democratic Party. The upper house is the less powerful of the Diet's two houses, so the victory doesn't mean much for getting legislation passed. As a display of Koizumi's political prowess, however, it was impressive.

Even so, the stock market dropped to a 16-year low the day after the election, as if to underscore the absence of a national consensus. The Japanese seemed ambivalent, worried that Koizumi was all talk and that no action would be forthcoming, or that he was telling them the facts of life and the ensuing fixes would be painful.

The prime minister's most formidable task is surely to kick-start the once-vaunted Japanese economy, which has languished in the doldrums for nearly a decade. As a measure of how bad things are, the total of Japanese private and public debt comes to five times the size of the national economy, or gross national product. Reviving the faltering banking system alone will be a full-time job.

Politically, Koizumi's party is riven with factions, those feudal domains led by power barons who attract followers with promises of campaign funds and patronage, a dose of personal loyalty, and not much ideology or policy. Koizumi's main contender is former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, leader of the largest faction, one that was formed by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, father of Koizumi's foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka. Wheels within wheels.

That may explain a tiff this week between Koizumi and Tanaka, the prime minister having instructed the foreign minister to fire four senior officials to bring her ministry into line. That was revolutionary in itself as Japan's political leaders have rarely sought to order around the independent bureaucracy. Tanaka, who has been feuding with ministry officials for months, had no problem in tangling with them again but wanted to do it her own way. Koizumi insisted and sent a message throughout the bureaucracy.

Like President Bush, Prime Minister Koizumi has had little experience in foreign policy but is confronted with complicated issues that, if badly handled, could jeopardize Japan's security. He favors good relations with the United States but has given no evidence that he would be a reliable ally in a contingency. Japan's trade surplus with the United States is running at a $70 billion annual rate and Koizumi has evinced no plan to reduce that.

China, in particular, has employed what an American diplomat calls "highly artificial" issues, such as complaining about a possible Koizumi visit to the Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead, including a handful of war criminals. Japan's relations with South Korea, always tense, are especially taut. Tokyo's relations with North Korea are almost nonexistent, even though North Korean missiles have been fired over Japan.

In the end, Koizumi may be able to reform his nation's economy, political and national security. But he has a long road to tread before he stands beside Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering political figure who led Japan out of the valley of darkness after the defeat of World War II, or Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, who put Japan's foot on the path to economic prosperity in the 1960s.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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