Bad Hair Day: Koizumi's Struggle in Japan. (Global Notebook)

By Fujii, Rina | Harvard International Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Bad Hair Day: Koizumi's Struggle in Japan. (Global Notebook)


Fujii, Rina, Harvard International Review


When Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister of Japan in April 2001, he had an approval rating of nearly 90 percent.

Elected to office without the full support of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Koizumi was acclaimed by junior legislators as well as by the people. As the successor to the dismally unpopular Yoshiro Mon, the new prime minister promised radical solutions for Japan's economic woes. With his reformist stance, striking coiffure, and dashing personality. Koizumi seemed to be a blast of fresh air in the stagnant Japanese political scene. The Japanese and the rest of the world had great hopes for the maverick politician, hailing him as the man to lead Japan into the 21st century.

However, in the months following his assumption of office, the prime minister's plans have met immense opposition. Koizumi's winning campaign platform of "Change the LDP, Change Japan" ironically points out his real problem in reforming Japan. In order to achieve substantial reforms, Koizumi must first reform the long-ruling LDP, of which he is the leader. Unfortunately, old-time LDP members have been unwilling to change their old ways and have stubbornly opposed Koizumi's calls for reform legislation.

The prime minister made his aim to change the LDP clear from the beginning, when he announced his cabinet on April 26. Koizumi paid no attention to the faction system within the LDP, through which the main party factions are ensured several cabinet posts in each administration. The system secures political clout for business interests, which make large campaign contributions to the factions. Upon announcing his cabinet list to stunned LDP faction leaders, many commented that this was indeed an "earth-shattering list." The five women, three non-politicians, and many junior party members in his list of 17 was unprecedented. The LDP old guard, though smarting at their rejection, did not take action against Koizumi immediately. They waited until after the Upper House election on July 29, when the LDP captured a majority of seats due to Koizumi's personal popularity.

The LDP members' animosity toward their party president has been exacerbated by his privatization agenda for state enterprises. State-owned corporations proliferated in Japan after World War II; there are now 163 such "special corporations." Run by the government with taxpayer money, they are involved in everything from oil exploration to home loans to highway building. The Japanese government will have to pay 5.3 trillion yen (US$40.8 billion) in subsidies and investment in 2001 to keep these enterprises afloat. As a key part of his drive to check the power of the bureaucracy and to shrink the size of the government, Koizumi wants to privatize the special corporations. Yet LDP politicians are loath to support privatization because the state-owned enterprises fuel pork-barrel politics. Throughout its 46 years in power since World War II, the LDP has garnered votes from farmers, builders, and small businessmen by awarding large state corporation projects to their constituencies. Many LDP members would not be a ble to survive a successful transfer of government companies to the private sector.

The Japanese bureaucracy has joined the LDP in resisting privatization. The government officials, known for their elitism and conservatism, have also relied on the special corporations for their private interests. Upon retiring from public office, the bureaucrats find sinecures in the many public corporations. The state enterprises pay handsomely; retired top civil servants can earn more than US$1 million in 10 years. …

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