Japanese Prime Minister KOIZUMI Junichiro and George W. Bush apparently took an immediate liking to each other. In a press conference after their first meeting, Bush described the Prime Minister as "dynamic " and reminiscent of Seattle Mariners baseball player "Ichiro. "
Their backgrounds have some striking similarities. Both are the not particularly bright scions of political families. Koizumi managed to enter the prestigious private Keio University yet wasn 't able to graduate at the normal Japanese commencement time of March. He graduated in May; and, according to my husband, also a Keio alumnus, this is a special dispensation for those without the credits to graduate on time but who have already lined up a job. Both Koizumi 's father and grandfather were members of Parliament. Political nepotism is far more common in Japan than it is in the United States; it is estimated that around 40 to 45% of the seats are held by people who inherited them from a relative --usually a father, father-in-law, grandfather, older brother, or uncle. MP widows aren 't so common but hardly unknown in Japan.
Koizumi inherited his own seat in his early 30s not long after the sudden death of his father Junya. Two out of Koizumi 's three immediate predecessors as Prime Minister (HASHIMOTO Ryutaro and OBUCHI Keizo) similarly ran for Parliament in their mid-20s, following the sudden deaths of their MP fathers. More recently, after Obuchi suddenly died in office in 2000, one of his daughters, then 26 years old, ran for and won his Parliamentary seat. (Obuchi 's only son wasn 't interested.)
One major difference between the ascension of Bush and Koizumi to national leader is that the latter was actually the popular choice. Of course, since Japan has a Parliamentary system, the people do not directly vote for their Prime Minister. Still, popular opinion widely favored him over Hashimoto Ryutaro, who heads the largest faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (which is really neither liberal nor very democratic) and who wanted to serve again as Prime Minister to improve on the admittedly not so good job he had done earlier. Normally, Hashimoto could have lined up enough votes to be elected again, but the LDP decided it couldn 't ignore popular opinion as well as the urgings of younger party members in regional posts who wanted some change after the rather unpopular reign of MORI Yoshiro, who had been picked arbitrarily by a few party elders to serve as Prime Minister after Obuchi 's death.
With modish curly gray hair, a well-known fondness for Elvis Presley songs, and being one of the few divorced (and not remarried) MPs, Koizumi presented himself as a maverick and is indeed a colorful character. One of Koizumi 's most avid supporters during his third and finally successful run to head the LDP was TANAKA Makiko, a popular MP and daughter of former Prime Minister TANAKA Kakuei. She became his first Foreign Minister only to have a falling out with him later. Makiko is now an Independent who sits with the leading opposition Democratic Party.
Koizumi assumed the Prime Minister post in April 2001, with approval ratings soaring above 80%. Leaving aside the ratings mentioned in both the print and broadcast media, I got a real taste of his initial popularity when he showed up at the sumo stadium on the last day of the May tournament that year. The crowd went wild when it was announced that Prime Minister Koizumi was in attendance. The only other times I personally have seen such a frenzy was whenever the late Emperor Hirohito showed up: even the present emperor is not accorded such applause.
Koizumi 's popularity rubbed off on others, as well. In great contrast to his predecessor Mori, whose appearances on the campaign trail for other members of his party almost invariably led to their defeat, politicians were happy to pose with Koizumi during subsequent campaigns for the Tokyo Assembly and House of Councilors elections in 2001. The LDP managed to increase its share of seats in both. Moreover, even Koizumi 's oldest son, Kotaro, an aspiring actor, who had had little success previously, suddenly began getting parts in TV dramas and appearing in beer commercials.
But Koizumi 's coziness with and similarities to George W. Bush have been major factors in his dramatic decline in popularity. After 9-11, he was able to get an Emergency Measures Act passed in both houses of Parliament. Somewhat similar to the American Patriot Act, this bill specifies what the government can take control of, including the mass media and private property, when Japan is attacked or feels under threat of attack. Similar proposals had been made a few times in the past, including once by Koizumi 's father, but all met with resound rejection
Moreover, despite overwhelming lack of public support for the Iraq War and the renouncement of war in the Japanese Constitution, Koizumi answered Bush 's call to join the coalition of the willing. Up until then, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces had been sent overseas only to help out after natural disasters. Ostensibly the SDF are in Iraq on a peace-keeping mission in a non-combatant zone. However, when asked in Parliament to distinguish between the non-combatant and combatant areas of Iraq, Koizumi couldn 't give a clear answer.
Furthermore, while Japan, along with Germany, Brazil, and India, has been lobbying for an expansion in the number of permanent seats on the UN Security Council, with the new positions going to them, Koizumi has deliberately offended its Asian neighbors with annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the war dead, including Class-A war criminals, are buried. Interestingly enough, prior to becoming Prime Minister, Koizumi had never done this solitarily, as he does now, nor had he joined the group of LDP politicians who annually pay their respects to the shrine on the anniversary of Word War II. Some LDP elders have tried to discourage the PM from going to the shrine but to no avail. Koizumi is not noted for listening to others once his mind is made up.
Also, in sharp contrast to Germany, which invites scholars from the nations it invaded like Poland and the Netherlands, to check the accounts of its actions during the war in school textbooks, Japan has never extended the same courtesy to the Asian countries it invaded. In fact, its tendency to whitewash accounts of the war has been another sore point with China and Korea in particular. For a brief time in the late 1980s and 1990s, some textbooks approved for use in history classes did touch on the coercion of thousands of Asian women into sexual slavery for the Japanese army, the Rape of Nanjing, etc., but such things have been getting edited out again lately.
Recent public opinion polls indicate that Koizumi 's support has dropped to about half of what it was when he first assumed the Prime Minister 's post and that the majority of respondents view him unfavorably. Prior to the recent election for the Tokyo Assembly I didn 't see any campaign posters with the candidate smiling beside Koizumi, and the LDP lost three seats. Moreover, son Kotaro seems to have disappeared from television.
Undoubtedly the greatest blow to Koizumi 's standing has been his handling of his longtime pet project of privatizing the postal system. Post offices in Japan handle not only counter services and mail delivery but also offer various banking and insurance services. Koizumi 's idea was to break these services up into four separate companies. Not surprisingly, it has been difficult for much of the general public to understand in particular the benefit of making post office counter and mail delivery services separate. Especially in sparsely populated rural regions the same post office employee is likely to handle more than one duty, and the local post office may be the only nearby place offering banking and insurance services.
On July 6, Koizumi 's postal privatization plan narrowly passed in the House of Representatives by 233 to 228, all of the former from his LDP and its coalition partner, the Komeito, a Buddhist sect-affiliated party. Thirty-seven MPs from the LDP voted against it, despite threats from the LDP leadership that they wouldn 't be allowed to run as a member of the party the next time if they did; another 14 either abstained or were absent. On August 1, NAGAOKA Yoji, a second-term MP who had succumbed to party pressure not to vote against the bill despite his initial opposition and that of his constituents, hung himself with a necktie bound to a staircase.
Despite Nagaoka 's suicide, Koizumi and the LDP leadership continued putting pressure on party members in the House of Councilors during the first week of August. The scheduled vote in that house was even postponed from Friday August 5 to Monday August 8, to give the party leadership extra time to court and pressure the several MPs who had yet to declare their position on the bill, however this completely backfired. On August 5, NAKASONE Hirofumi, son of a former Prime Minister who had been forced to retire from politics by Koizumi (who had decided not to extend LDP recognition to candidates over 80 years old in proportional representation districts), came out against the measure, which caused some other fence-sitters to join him. Then on Sunday, TANAKA Naoki, Makiko 's husband, also expressed his intention to vote No. Ultimately the bill was defeated by 125 to 108 in the House of Councilors, with several LDP defections, leading Koizumi to dissolve the House of Representatives, as is a Prime Minister 's right, and call for a new election on September 11. Still unconvinced that the public really does not want to privatize the postal system, he explained in a press conference later that evening that he wants to give citizens a chance to vote on his pet project and said that he will resign as Prime Minister should the LDP suffer defeat in the upcoming election. He even compared himself to Galileo for being willing to suffer the consequences for something he knows is right and added that he is prepared to commit political suicide. Defeat for several LDP lawmakers is a virtual given. Aside from the general lack of public support for privatization, at least 37 well-known MPs will be forced to run either as Independents or form or join another party. The LDP leadership is already fielding other candidates, many with absolutely no connection to the particular election district, to run against them to the display of local party offices. Koizumi 's political suicide is likely to be a mass one.