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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Koizumi, one year on
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
Koizumi came to power vowing to clean up politics
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By David Powers
Japan analyst

It is tempting to draw comparisons between Junichiro Koizumi's unexpected propulsion to power in April 2001 and one of the many earthquakes that regularly shake Japan in a more literal sense.

He has changed the face of Japanese politics, and in a way that it is going to be very hard - if not impossible - for his enemies to reverse

But Japan has also become so well adapted to earthquakes, they often do hardly any damage; and it is only on very rare occasions - such as the Kobe earthquake in 1995 - that they leave a lasting mark on the country.

In political terms, Mr Koizumi's election as leader of Liberal Democratic Party shook to the roots the grandees of the party that has governed Japan almost without break for nearly half a century.

Just like an earthquake, they did not see it coming. Nor for that matter did Mr Koizumi, and so came to office without a carefully worked out plan of action.

The question is - one year on - whether the Koizumi earthquake has been one that barely interrupts business as usual, or whether it has left a deep imprint on the way Japan is run.

'Nato PM'

Cynics have already delivered their verdict. They call Mr Koizumi the Nato Prime Minister - No Action, Talk Only.

Koizumi at Yasukuni Shrine
Koizumi has upset Japan's neighbours with two visits to the Yasukuni Shrine

He came to office promising to pull Japan out of its most prolonged post-war economic slump - 10 years of little or no growth, ballooning public debt, and constant fears of a bank collapse under the burden of loans that companies are unable to pay off.

He also promised there would be no gain without pain - a promise he kept in part (the painful bit), by presiding over the highest level of unemployment since World War II.

Mr Koizumi also brought his own style to Japanese politics. He refused to let the party grandees draw up his cabinet list, but made the decisions himself.

A third of the cabinet he appointed were women - unheard of in male-dominated Japanese society.

Many too, including himself, were fluent speakers of English; and unlike previous ministers, who were criticised by the party for speaking English in public, they have not been afraid to use it.

Most outspoken of all was his foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, who famously used a very crude Anglo-Saxon expression to describe George W Bush on a visit to the United States.

Mrs Tanaka's strong support among Japanese women combined with Mr Koizumi's straight-talking manner to produce one of the most popular governments Japan has ever had - its support rising at one point to around 90%.

'Style, no substance'

Mr Koizumi's critics point out that in spite of all the fine promises, his year in office has produced plenty of style, but little of substance.

There are vague flickers of an economic recovery, but the bank problem is still far from resolved.

Youth unemployment and disaffection are running high, and most of Mr Koizumi's bold proposals for reform of the economy and bureaucracy have been watered down.

They also point out that a very public row with Mrs Tanaka, followed by her dismissal, has slashed the government's popularity in half.

Lasting influence

The suspicion is that Mr Koizumi will either have to become a puppet to the party grandees, or that they will dump him at the earliest opportunity and try to resume business as usual.

Certainly, Mr Koizumi has failed to wave a magic wand and reform Japan overnight, but it would be unrealistic to expect that anyway, given the size of the problem.

He has also upset Japan's neighbours by two visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours the war dead, including a number of convicted war criminals.

But he has changed the face of Japanese politics, and in a way that it is going to be very hard - if not impossible - for his enemies to reverse.

A string of high-profile political scandals has brought the resignation from parliament of two MPs, and the disgrace of a further two.

In the past, they would probably have stayed. The need for reform is now very much on the public agenda.

Mr Koizumi may yet prove to be the person who actually achieves it, but even if he does not, he has readied the way for someone who can.

Now if that someone were a woman, that really would be an earthquake.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"Few now see Mr Koizumi as the man to rescue Japan"
See also:

23 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Koizumi's first year
19 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
New scandal blow for Koizumi
08 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi ally quits politics over scandal
26 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Tables turn on Japan's trouble shooter
01 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Cabinet blow for Koizumi
15 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Koizumi faces harsh economic reality
29 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Axe falls on Japanese foreign minister
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