09/29/2006, 00.00
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Legacy of Junichiro Koizumi, new overtures to China

by Pino Cazzaniga

For all the Japanese people, the ex-prime minister "made history" with his direct style and liberalization of the economy. However, he has left behind shaky ties with China and Korea, which his successor, Shinzo Abe, is already working on.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – On 26 September, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi bade his collaborators farewell. When he was elected to the Diet (Parliament) in April 2001, analysts predicted a short term: his was, however, one of the longest at five years and four months. Now some observers even say his rise to power was not by chance, but rather an invitation to make history.

"Koizumi was a premier of a different race," wrote journalist Hiroko Nakata. "He expressed clear messages, took initiatives and was accessible to the media." Because of these qualities, "he was so popular that few in the party dared to challenge him when he was getting ready to shake the political and economic system."

"It cannot be denied that Koizumi transformed the society," said Ikuo Kume, professor of politics and economy at Waseda University (Tokyo). "He made history."

Such flattering judgments should not deceive: the outgoing premier was more of a demolisher than a builder. But he demolished structures that asked to be demolished and that no leader thus far had had the courage and ability to tackle.

In his last interview, Koizumi said: "When I took on this post, the economy of Japan was in stagnation and pessimistic visions prevailed. Today, there is the will to confront the challenges of new times and the confidence that we can manage, if we try."

This was recognized even by one of his most severe critics, Yasuhiro Nakasone (88), ex prime minister (1982-87). "During the 'lost decade' of the nineties," he wrote, "the economy crumbled and crimes were increasing, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) disintegrated and the government was changing frequently. Over the past years, the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, maintained a stable and vigorous administration, eliminating the image of Japan as a nation that was going astray." All the same, he added, "he did nothing to build a new nation". In other words, his demerits are no less relevant than his merits.

His greatest achievement was arguably the liquidation of the old system of government dubbed by analysts as "system 55". In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was formed and it enjoyed an absolute majority for decades. In this context, with few exceptions, it was not the prime minister who really governed but a group of party, bureaucratic and industrial leaders: an "iron triangle" that yielded good results for economic development but proved to be injurious to the maturation of democract. Towards the end of the 80s, inevitable political corruption and the demands of globalization obstructed its functioning. Koizumi, who intuited the cause of the obstruction, dared to defy the party, using as leverage the popularity he had gained.

"Without structural reforms, no economic revival is possible," was one of his slogans. To succeed, he did not bow to factional requests, choosing as collaborators those people who had reformist mentalities and abilities. "Eliminating the old regime," said Kume, "he gave strength and substance to the office of the prime minister, preventing the old guard from controlling decision-making."

The main reform on his programme was the privatisation of the postal service, which in reality constituted Japan's most powerful bank and insurance agency, with 350 billion yen at its disposal. Being state-owned, party leaders tapped into the postal organisation to realise questionable public works that favoured group interests.

Koizumi did all he could to have it privatised. When in 2002 the bill of law presented by the government was rejected in parliament because of "free shooters" within his party, he dared to dissolve Parliament and to call elections: he won with a startling majority. The transgressors were eliminated. Due to these and other reforms, economic production, which in 2002 had reached its lowest level in 30 years, started to grow again in a sustained way.

His most serious demerit was his failure in Asian diplomacy because of repeated visits to the Shintoist Yasukuni shrine, where 14 men (so-called Class A criminals) are honoured together with 1,400,000 War dead. These 14 men were found to be responsible for the war of invasion perpetrated by Japan in the 30s and 40s, to the detriment of other Asian nations, especially China and Korea. For this reason, for more than five years, there have been no state visits at leadership level between China and Japan and, since last November, there have been none with South Korea either. In a farewell interview, Koizumi defended himself, saying: "The Japanese understand I visit the shrine to honour those who fell for the homeland, not to justify the war. Is it right to refuse a summit (on China's part) because of a difference between the two nations? The answer will become clear later." We do not believe history will prove him right: the problem is not simply a moral one but a political one too: ties between China and Korea on the one hand and Japan on the other depend on the Japan's effective recognition of the aggressive nature of those wars.

His successor, Shinzo Abe, immediately communicated his election to leaders of China and South Korea. The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, responded with a congratulatory message, committing "to work tirelessly to improve relations between the two nations". It augurs well that the new premier has reconfirmed Taro Aso (66) as foreign affairs minister. Aso was his rival in the race for presidency of the council. A practicing Catholic, Aso, although he is tough, has in the past few months been welcomed by the Chinese government as a man who is worthy of respect.

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See also
Tokyo-Seoul, dialogue on certain conditions
Violent anti-Japan demonstrations in Shanghai and Tianjin
Beijing and Seoul protest Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni temple
Tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang rise as Cold War fears cast a shadow over Korea
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200 Japanese MPs visit Yasukuni shrine


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