Talk Story


Thursday, October 18, 2001

Can Ben Cayetano
find a cure for the
‘Koizumi Syndrome?’

ANTHRAX, dengue fever -- there's a lot of bad stuff going around. Next week we'll find out whether Gov. Ben Cayetano contracted a case of "Koizumi Syndrome" from popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on his recent trip to Japan.

Brad Glosserman, research director for the local think tank, Pacific Forum CSIS, defines the syndrome as "bold announcements that launch high hopes that are then dashed by a combination of a failure to follow up and the obstacles and inertia that are built into the ... political system."

In Koizumi's case, the disease is symptomatic of his surging to power on a wave of popularity promising reform that would rejuvenate the Japanese economy, and then not delivering.

One major reform proposal was to end reliance on massive, government-funded public works projects aimed at boosting the economy. Koizumi's proposal tocap construction bonds at $250 billion makes Cayetano's proposal to spend $1 billion here look puny.

As in Hawaii, however, those projects coincidentally generated revenues for the constituencies that have traditionally supported his political party. Koizumi's calls for reform alienated those Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts, Glosserman says.

Meanwhile, in the second quarter Japan's gross domestic product dropped another 0.8 percent and official unemployment surged to 5 percent, while unofficial estimates of unemployment range as high as 10.4 percent.

Although he hasn't been explicit, Koizumi's other reforms are thought to include steps to painfully restructure the economy, "including the closure of unprofitable businesses and inefficient public sector organizations," said Glosserman. "In other words, there would be significantly more unemployment." The result has been a political stalemate and no action on the promised reforms.

The events of Sept. 11 may have spawned a case of Koizumi Syndrome here in Hawaii, where Cayetano proposes, despite political opposition, to initiate the same kind of public works spending that Koizumi was trying to cap. In Japan, however, the terrorist attacks may have brought the cure.

In Tokyo, as in Washington, the political focus has switched from stimulating the economy to waging war on terrorism. To avoid the embarrassment of the Persian Gulf War, where Japan was conspicuously absent, Koizumi immediately condemned the attacks, said he'd stand with the United States when we retaliated, and promised $10 million in aid.

Since then, his government has assembled a seven-point response plan that includes using Self Defense Forces to aid in intelligence gathering and logistical support for American military actions. "It will no longer hold that the Self-Defense Forces should not be sent to danger spots," Koizumi said. "There is no such thing as a safe place."

True enough, but before we declare the "maverick" prime minister cured, Koizumi will have to get the plan through his cabinet and the Diet. A new law, for example, will be needed to let Japanese forces get involved even as non-combatants. Time will tell.

During the Gulf War, Japanese tourists stayed away from Hawaii in droves. As one of our closest allies, not being able to participate in the allied military effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was a national embarrassment and vacationers were unwilling to travel.

"There are bright, intelligent and hardworking individuals in both capitals working hard to see that the mistakes of the decade are not repeated," Glosserman said. This bodes well for Japanese tourism to Hawaii, although Japan's chronic economic malaise doesn't help.

As for our governor, next week's special session of the Legislature will demonstrate whether he has the political traction to sell his economic recovery package -- and cement his legacy -- or if a case of Koizumi Syndrome will stall it.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

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