The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future

Andrew Stevens
20 September 2006

There are no miracles in Japanese politics. Shinzo Abe, frontrunner in the three-way contest to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was indeed elected to the post on 20 September 2006. Abe's 464 votes made it a decisive victory over his two rivals, Taro Aso (136) and Sadakazu Tanigaki (102). That paves the way to a vote in the Diet (parliament) on 26 September which will make him the country's twenty-sixth prime minister under its 1947 constitution.

The double elevation of Shinzo Abe draws the Koizumi era to a natural close. It also raises the question of the departing leader's legacy. The key element in any assessment must be the quality of Japanese governance after five years of frenetic activity and high-octane rhetoric, whose central theme has been that most seductive of all political words: "reform". 

Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com. He writes in a personal capacity

Also by Andrew Stevens in openDemocracy:

"Japan's fifty-year political itch"
(10 August 2005)

"Japan's first presidential election"
(12 September 2005)

Wither factionalism?

It may be too early for a definitive assessment of Koizumi's five years in office, but it can be said that the prime minister at least made Japan feel better about itself after a decade of decline. He leaves office on a high, with an enviable approval rating and with many political colleagues clamouring for him to stay as LDP president.

It is an amusing comment on the expectation of some pundits soon after he reached the summit of power that he would not long survive. Koizumi is still derided within the party for riding roughshod over the LDP's once-mighty factions, now reduced to talking-shops and dining-clubs, though his pledge to "destroy the LDP" by dismantling the factions altogether has not been fully accomplished. Many of the new intake following the September 2005 general election heeded Koizumi's call not to join factions, though some did from perceived career necessity. The presidential-style 2005 campaign itself played a significant role in the shift away from factions by introducing to the Diet people (especially women) from non-traditional political backgrounds.

The wider issue on which much of Koizumi's legacy rests was ostensibly at the centre of the 2005 campaign: public-sector reform. Again, it is too early to judge his success here, especially since the rhetoric and noise has not yet translated into palpable change. At the same time, the unhealthy practice of "pork-barrelling" in public works has largely ended, much to the chagrin of those dependent on factional patronage.

The five-year report card, then, appears to suggest an incomplete reform record but a largely changed political landscape. Most importantly, the economy has performed well under Koizumi, though much tougher medicine will be needed to stave off competition from the European Union and other east Asian economies.

That's the good news. There is another side: the widening disparity of incomes in Japan. Economic recovery may fuel a consumer boom in the Ginza department stores but fails to provide much comfort to the country's increasing number of low-income workers. The government's efforts in this area have been less than effective, with tax increases being seen as the best way to tackle issues such as the growing numbers of young people in irregular work. Japan has not resolved the question of how far governments should regulate private income, and a "two-tier" financing system means that the pressure to fund welfare is often felt at the local government level.

The decentralisation of fiscal burdens (the so-called "trinity reforms") has been another current of reform under Koizumi. This policy is only now coming to fruition - including the near-bankruptcy of a number of municipalities. But a core aim of the reforms, to end dependency on national subsidies, also fuels the largely unregulated urbanisation of Japanese society. This means that large cities are growing rapidly at the expense of depopulated rural areas, bringing a new set of pressures in a "greying society".

We've tried reform

The Koizumi legacy (leaving aside his impact on sensitive regional relationships with South Korea and China) also includes four currents of discontent in the Japanese body politic. The first is the bureaucratic elite, once replenished by graduates from Tokyo University law faculty who were guaranteed a safe government career replete with lucrative perks (and possible retirement in political office on behalf of the LDP). Today, the elite is under pressure from two sources: salary cuts as a result of tougher and more effective public-sector reforms, and crumbling deference to public officials. A by-product of the latter is that politicians are looking elsewhere for advice and support.

The second is Japan's rightists - from elected officials such as Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, to extremists who attempt ritual suicide on the doorsteps of LDP politicians. They have faced severe intellectual and media criticism over their historical revisionism and China-baiting activities. The right is often regarded as a rising force in Japanese politics, and Shinzo Abe himself is routinely described as a "hardliner", yet the reality may be less dramatic. In particular, Japanese nationalism appears to be a spent force in the face of public indifference, and even the LDP's high command seek to banish nationalism's more lurid advocates within the ranks to the ultra-marginal fringe.

The third is Japan's main political opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This is led (for the second time) by Ichiro Ozawa, a former LDP grandee and faction head who played a leading role in pork-barrel patronage until the 1993 split which precipitated a brief respite from the LDP's one-party rule for the first time since its foundation in 1955.

The DPJ has never discarded its origins as a curious mix of centrist and minor-left parties opposed to LDP hegemony. After Ozawa's resignation amid financial scandal, the party had a minor stab at modernisation under the post-2005 election leadership of the youthful Seiji Maehara, until a minor scandal forced an honourable resignation. Thus, Japan finds itself with an LDP in a state of almost perpetual governance and a nominally liberal opposition that tries to outgun a conservative government from the right, whose frequent attacks on public officials tend to reinforce bureaucrats' residual loyalty to the LDP.

The fourth current is the brief and now diminishing flirtation with maverick independents, exemplified at the prefectural level with the election of Shintaro Ishihara in Tokyo in 1999 and Yasuo Tanaka as Nagano's governor in 2000 (each too a well-known novelist). Tanaka formed the New Japan Party to contest the 2005 election as the standard-bearer for those opposed to Koizumi's public-sector reform, but attracted only LDP malcontents in the process. For his troubles, the voters of Nagano replaced him in 2006 with a former LDP minister who promised a return to cosy consensual politics.

Also on Japan's politics and international relationships in openDemocracy:

Takashi Inoguchi, "The Japanese decision"
(7 August 2003)

Takashi Inoguchi, "An ordinary power, Japanese-style"
(26 February 2004)

Takashi Inoguchi, "America and Japan: the political is personal"
(17 June 2004)

Noriko Hama, "Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains"
(12 September 2005)

Noriko Hama, "How not to build an East Asian Community"
(9 December 2005)

Abe's bulging in-tray

Amid these flows and eddies, Japan once again has turned to the scion of a political dynasty to lead it. Shinzo Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who survived accusations of war crimes to become a post-war prime minister (1957-60), and his father was Shintaro Abe, who served as Japan's foreign minister (1982-86).

Koizumi had refrained from endorsing a successor, but his post-election appointment of Abe as cabinet secretary with a prominent, roving brief was a tacit, if not explicit, steer to the LDP. This gave Abe's bid for the LDP presidency greater leverage than his chief rival Taro Aso (the grandson of influential post-war prime minister Shigeru Yoshida), whose experience at the interior and foreign ministries also provided the opportunity for high-profile gaffes over relations with China and North Korea.

The publication during the LDP campaign of an unofficial policy manifesto gives some indication of Shinzo Abe's priorities as prime minister. There are predictable calls for revision of the country's pacifist constitution (to be endorsed by a referendum), the creation of a CIA-style intelligence bureau, and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. More curiously, the manifesto expresses an interest in Tony Blair's "respect" agenda, thus continuing the LDP's fascination with New Labour reform efforts even after their virtual expiry in Britain.

Abe's cabinet may accommodate LDP traditionalists in a way that Koizumi resisted, but he has also closely observed the quasi-imperial style of leadership lately fashionable in London and Washington, suggesting that he may seek to echo a Koizumi-type distance from his own colleagues. For this task he will probably promote some of the newer Diet members, select as advisors younger bureaucrats who share the reformist mindset, and rely on figures outside the government machine for support.

Abe's first electoral challenge as LDP head will be the elections to the Diet's upper house in 2007. The DPJ may try to portray Ichiro Ozawa as a voice of seniority compared to the youthful Abe, a strategy that could prove misguided if the latter's first months as prime minister enable him to establish his authority.

In policy terms, the DPJ will probably maintain its own support for revising the constitution against the wishes of its own rank-and-file, thus guaranteeing exposure of its divisions. Meanwhile, the once mighty Social Democrats are reduced to a lobby group for North Korea, and the Japanese Communist Party's unflinching adherence to the status quo is unlikely to stem its steady decline.

Shinzo Abe's election is a sign of Junichiro Koizumi's success in eroding the hated faction system and thus furthering the LDP's reinvention. Those who still see the dissipation of LDP hegemony as the route to revivifying Japan's political system may be best advised to focus their efforts on creating a sharp, unified, forward-looking opposition. They have a mountain to climb. There are no miracles in Japanese politics.

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