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Last Updated: Monday, 18 September 2006, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Koizumi's unique legacy of change
By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Mr Koizumi waves as he leaves for Mongolia in August 2006
Mr Koizumi is due to step down at the end of September
The five years since Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office have certainly not been dull.

Mr Koizumi has forced through hard-hitting economic reforms, sidelined ruling party traditionalists and carved out a new international profile for the country.

And he has changed, perhaps for good, the way politics works in Japan.

"Koizumi really stands out as a unique prime minister," says Professor Haruo Shimada of Keio University. "He brought very powerful leadership and a clear-cut message."

As Mr Koizumi prepares to step aside - the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is set to elect a new leader on Wednesday - Japan is weighing up the prime minister's achievements, and whether they will last.


Mr Koizumi's biggest achievement, says Prof Shimada, was changing the way decisions were taken.

He took control over the budget from the civil service, using his authority to streamline Japan's huge bureaucracy and cut public spending.

The move did not please everybody. Cuts to public works projects - vote-winners for ruling party lawmakers in rural areas - annoyed party traditionalists.

He created an image of himself that the media could catch on to
Dr Sarah Hyde

But it was in his plans to reform Japan Post - the mammoth postal savings institution - that Mr Koizumi faced his biggest challenge from Liberal Democratic Party elders.

Mr Koizumi argued that privatising the post office would free up funds - used to finance works projects - to help the economy. Critics said that the move would lead to job losses and weaken the LDP's support base.

The bill was defeated in parliament in August 2005, so Mr Koizumi called - and overwhelmingly won - an election, a poll that quickly became a referendum on postal reform.

"Koizumi really challenged the traditional machinations of domestic politics to achieve his reform agenda," says Nicholas Szechenyi of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"He decided that he was going to push ahead with his agenda and sweep tradition aside," Mr Szechenyi said. "He set the stage for independent policy-making."

He also, by not deferring to party elders and factions, shunned the consensus-based style of his predecessors.


Mr Koizumi's willingness to confront his own party and initiate reform won him popular support, as did his flamboyancy.

He attracted attention with his open passion for music - opera and Elvis - and there was, of course, his much-celebrated hair style.

"These things were important because he created an image of himself that the media could catch on to," says Dr Sarah Hyde of the University of Kent.

Mr Koizumi wearing Elvis-like glasses during his tour of Graceland in June 2006
Mr Koizumi's eccentricities have helped him engage with the public

"It was interesting to follow Koizumi, and you can't often say that about a Japanese prime minister."

This high level of interest helped him get his policy messages through to the public, and the popular support he won, even if it fluctuated from time to time, allowed him to pursue more controversial policies, particularly on the international stage.

He prioritised a strong alliance with the United States, forging a good relationship with President George W Bush. And it was to support Washington that he approved the dispatch of the Self-Defence Forces to Iraq, the first time Japanese troops had been deployed to a combat zone since World War II.

While the presence of troops may not have been strategically vital, it was a much-appreciated gesture to the US.

The dispatch - as well as others to support Afghan operations and Indonesian reconstruction - and a series of high profile visits by Mr Koizumi to areas including North Korea, the Middle East and Central Asia, showed Japan was seeking a higher profile on the international stage.

"His leadership really helped cement Japan's global role," says Mr Szechenyi.

'New debate'

But this new role - and Tokyo's quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council - refocused attention on Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, which bans the retention of military forces.

After the Iraq dispatch went through under special legislation, Mr Koizumi proposed a constitutional revision allowing the deployment of troops on peace-keeping missions.

Mr Koizumi bows at the Yasukuni shrine in October 2005
Mr Koizumi's shrine visits have angered countries in the region

The idea of revision is domestically unpopular and may be years away. But, says Dr Hyde, it is now "a whole new debate that they never had before".

But constitutional revision would not please Japan's neighbours, and it is in regional relationships that Mr Koizumi's record is most open to criticism.

Ties with China have deteriorated to their worst state in decades because of a row over his visits to the controversial war-linked Yasukuni shrine. The two countries are also at odds over undersea resources that both claim, although bilateral trade continues to grow.

Dr Hyde says Mr Koizumi's attitude towards China is ill-judged. "Everyday China gets more important to Japan, but Japan hasn't realised this yet," she says.

Equally, countries in the region fear what they perceive as a creeping return to nationalist attitudes of the past.

Dr Hyde believes that nationalist sentiment is on the up, albeit within a small minority. "Under Koizumi, (nationalists) have been able to voice these thoughts far more easily than before," she says.


What happens after Mr Koizumi is not clear.

His economic reforms will take time to play out and, while he has opened the debate on several new policy areas, they remain to be completed by his successor.

There are also a number of issues that Mr Koizumi leaves unresolved, such as the declining birth-rate and concern over rising income disparities.

And it remains to be seen whether the changes he brought to the Japanese political scene are permanent.

Dr Hyde foresees a partial return to a more traditional leadership style. "I think there can only be some retrenchment and return to the old way," she said.

But this is in part because Mr Koizumi was such a departure from leaders of the past.

"Domestically he challenged the system, both politically and economically, to advance his reform agenda. He was in incredibly dynamic leader," said Mr Szechenyi.

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