The Triumph of the Accidental Hero

By James, Victoria | New Statesman (1996), July 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Triumph of the Accidental Hero


James, Victoria, New Statesman (1996)


The Japanese have fallen in love with their new prime minister - even though they didn't vote for him, reports

They call it the "Koizumi effect", but "rabu rabu" (true love) is nearer the mark. Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's charismatic prime minister, elected just two months ago, has the whole country in a collective swoon.

"A silver-maned ace," drooled one reporter covering the Tokyo metropolitan elections on 24 June. "This charming bachelor," sighed Professor Tom Plate of the University of California Los Angeles, in an aside from his east Asian analysis of Koizumi's policies. The Tokai professor and former newswire boss Kenzo Uchida comes over all trembly about Koizumi's "sensibility", while a love- struck 74-year-old in the prefecture of Kanagawa threatened to leap to her death if she could not meet the prime minister.

With his promises of reform and a stylish [pound]50-a-time perm, Koizumi has won a public approval rating consistently above 80 percent, and will most probably secure the Sangiin, the upper house, for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the elections to come on 29 July. It is a far cry from the situation a few months ago, when Koizumi's predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, was evaluated disapprovingly by 81.8 per cent of the electorate and the LDP was steering a course straight for the rocks of electoral disaster.

How did it happen? No one really knows. Back in March, the political forecasters Toshi Maeda and Kanako Takahara were confidently predicting "that the ruling camp seems unlikely to select any reform oriented politician to be the next leader". The dissatisfaction of Japan's electorate certainly built to a head during Mori's year in office, but, in reality, Koizumi was elected prime minister by default when the LDP, which dominates the present coalition governing Japan, selected him as party leader. Its critics allege that the LDP is less a political entity than a club of ambitious people, abiding by certain rules (rapid rotation of senior positions, complete obedience to the party line) to ensure swift promotion, high office and then a lucrative post-political career. Power is concentrated in the hands of "shadow shoguns" or "kingmakers", who are themselves in hock to vote-holding groups controlled by industry.

The political influence wielded by Japanese industry has existed for as long as Japanese democracy itself. When the Meiji revolution of 1868 replaced the shoguns' military rule with a parliamentary-imperial system, tile-makers along the Sumida River offered [yen]100 a year to the government in exchange for restrictions on competition. Their descendants have been doing the same ever since, and it was estimated before the LDP leadership elections that 65 percent of the 2.4 million registered party members were controlled by construction bosses supporting Ryutaro Hashimoto, Koizumi's failed rival.

In the event, Koizumi won 123 out of the 141 votes collectively cast by the party rank and file. The ageing vote-machine had malfunctioned, and reluctant LDP elders realised that exercising their kingmaking powers to force the remaining 346 LDP Diet member votes for Hashimoto would be seen as thwarting the will of the people. In the end, Koizumi took barely half of the MPs' votes, but that was all he needed.

Not beholden to party interests for his election, Koizumi has ignored them ever since - and the politically jaded public loves him for it. He installed Makiko Tanaka, daughter of the late, reforming prime minister Kakuei Tanaka as foreign minister. To read the newspapers - Japan's political news is fed through exclusive party "press clubs", and the trade-off for access is verbatim reporting - Tanaka is a national disaster. …

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