I am going to miss Koizumi SO MUCH – no for what he accomplished, but for what he DID

Look at him being awesome in Mongolia:


Best Prime Minister ever? You bet. Too bad he’ll be checking out next month.

What I really liked about Koizumi was his knack for political spectacle – you may remember his recent Elvis impersonation. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at Koizumi’s sheer presence on camera. He’ll be remembered in the US for his horrible karaoke at Graceland, but in Japan he is likely to go down as Japan’s biggest reformer since MacArthur.

Now, R. Taggart Murphy at the New Left Review points out that Koizumi did precious little to shake up Japan’s real power structure – unchecked and all-powerful bureaucrats who are loyal lapdogs of the US because Japan’s immense dollar holdings leave them with few options. I can’t offer a complete response to the article, but he dismisses Koizumi’s reform drive as a “convincing act,” a claim that’s irritating as someone who looks at some of the trees among the forest of Japan’s government.

I mean, he’s basically right. Of course any responsible Japanese politician isn’t going to commit political suicide by disrupting the precarious world financial system (Taggart admits that elsehwere in the paper), and any policy pursued by the PM’s office is going to be riddled with concessions to the “real power holders” – hence the directionless postal privatization policy and failure to get Japanese bond issuances down under 30 trillion yen, as well as leaving many other unanswered questions. And he makes a good point – that the push for so-called “neoliberal” economic policies that has been going on since the 90s were often nothing but smoke and mirrors hiding more cynical policy objectives.

But at least in terms of political reform, Koizumi did a lot – the dismantling of the LDP’s faction system (as seen in the rush to support Abe), the rise of the CEFP style of policy making, and the fruition of Japan’s new electoral system, all Koizumi-led developments. These are not merely “imported suits of clothes” as he puts it but (late) responses to demands from the public to take power away from the bureaucrats, who have lost significant public trust in the last decade or so.

But it looks like Japan’s next PM, Shinzo Abe, in addition to offering very little on policy issues (reports on his new book and promotional campaign seem pretty wishy washy – I mean, 2nd chances for failed business owners?!). And it’s certain that he will offer nothing even remotely closely resembling Koizumi’s early classic bike safety display in full, shiny reflective business attire.

I mean, just look at this guy (on the left of course):
abe and koizumi with chicks.jpg

As much as I’d like to know what this picture is all about (Chinese source!), it’s clear enough that this man is zombie Jon Arbuckle – boring, lame, and flesh-eating. He’s typical LDP blah and Japan needs none of it.

Koizumi, you’ll be sorely missed. I’ll be crying as I clutch my lion keychain (get them at the LDP HQ while they’re hot!) during Abe’s swearing in.

13 thoughts on “I am going to miss Koizumi SO MUCH – no for what he accomplished, but for what he DID”

  1. the chinese article is about the 4 people 麻垣康三:麻生太郎、谷垣祯一, 福田康夫,安倍晋三 competing for the succession…with introduction on the background and political inclination of the 4.

  2. It is possible to argue that Koizumi gets credit for reforms which in fact saw their start under Hashimoto. The FSA was created in June 1998 and that body was instrumental in overseeing the initial restructuring of the banks. Without it, there would probably have been no Shinsei Bank and all that followed. Koizumi introduced no comparable reforms before the biggie of postal privatization which is yet to play itself out. The reduction in public works also began under Hashimoto, falling from 9% of GDP to 7%. It actually rose after he resigned as PM before resuming the downward trend to just under 4.5% today.

    It’s probable that Hashimoto didn’t want to be a reformer but was forced to respond to events on his watch. Politically, the LDP was so shaky during his tenure that when MoF submitted proposals to raise the consumption tax and remove income tax rebates, they agreed to both when the astonished MoF had fully expected one to be rejected. The fiscal overtightening which resulted throttled an already weak economic recovery and helped expose the faultines in the financial system which the FSA later began to deal with.

    Under Koizumi, the bureaucrats haven’t been reined in as much as his spin would have you believe. If they had been, then there would already be a casino in Odaiba and new gambling laws but MAFF has so far stood in the way. The ministries have begun to represent themselves as the protectors of the average Japanese citizen and it is the FSA and MoJ who are leading the current assault on the “social ills” of the sarakin industry rather than any lawmakers. Perhaps as a means of improving their public status which, as you say, has been tarnished.

    Murphy, then, could be right that most of the reforms had very little to do with any broader neoliberal plan by Koizumi but when did he ever say that that was his plan? If these trends were already working their way through since the middle 90’s then there’s no sleight-of-hand on the Prime Minister’s part as Murphy believes. But nor is it true to say that the effects of these reforms were insignificant. Horie’s up on charges but last time I looked there were two hostile takeover attempts on the go, both postdating his arrest.

    Koizumi did speak of wanting to destroy the LDP and it certainly looks like a different beast on the surface compared with the party of 10 years ago so we’ll see what happens now. Unfortunately, reading the political runes in Japan has always been one of the weakest part of foreign analysis of the country and remains so today. No-one really seems to know.

    It’s difficult to agree with Murphy’s portrayal of a MoF that has been calling all the shots along the way. The Tax Bureau has been been the prime mover behind the prosecution of most financial scandals since the bubble burst and many, starting with the tobashi investigations, embarrassed MoF. The fall of Horie and Murakami might seem to signal the end of something but, equally, so might the fall of Seibu’s Tsutsumi, Takefuji’s Takei, Daiei’s Nakauchi, Sogo’s Mizushima and various Kanebo executives. That’s a mix of old Japan, new Japan, entrepeneurs and salarymen.

    Even prosecuting entrepeneurs isn’t new. There was the fall of another thrusting new businessman in the strangely forgotten case of “lucky venture capitalist” Yoshihiko Kokura. Having convinced MoF to let him buy Sanyo Investment Trust and then Taiyo Life, it was noticed that he was pulling off an almighty fraud and he went to jail. His old pal, Eisuke Sakakibara found himself in the same kind of hot water as BoJ Governor Fukui did more recently. Perhaps if Mori had managed to put up Roppongi Hills a few years earlier and Kokura had taken offices there, more people would remember him.

  3. Whoops. Somehow I’ve posted twice at different times. The second piece is the one I meant to stick in. You are free to delete both, of course.

  4. Sun bin – thanks for clearing that up. Any idea what’s going on in the photo itself?

    Mulboyne – Basically, I think Murphy is wrong about his claim that economic reforms are mere window dressing – this is a flaw that reminds me of van Wolferen (no such thing as a Japanese government, every policy is an abortive “nonpolicy”). As your examples show, there is most certainly a host of policy challenges facing Japan, and the debate over which path to follow is often waged between ministries rather than in the Diet or among public interest groups. Sure, Japan has no intention of rocking the international financial system, but that doesn’t let Japan off the hook for finding ways to stay competitive and fight stagnation in the runup to its demographic crunch, for starters. Things like removing government employee status from 260k postal workers aren’t horse and pony shows for Washington – they have real consequences that, handled badly, could spell doom for the ruling party and the bureaucratic stranglehold on power in general.

    For one thing, the GOJ is much more transparent than it’s ever been. Major developments include the advent of FOIA requests and public comment procedures. Also, during the Koizumi years a wealth of government stats/white papers have become available for free online. These developments give private groups and opposition leaders more tools with which to force transparency from the government. Of course, the first two were basically pushed through by the US, but who’s counting?

    And sure, Koizumi hasn’t kept the bureaucrats at bay (what happened to the LDP think tank?) My old boss comlpained that his inauguration speech in 2001 was mostly written by kanryo. But I would argue that in the case of CEFP, the election system, etc Koizumi simply used the tools that were made available to him by his predecessors and made them work.

    Good point about the FSA – it’s interesting to see them work to position themselves as Japan’s SEC, which is, I believe, a worthy thing to aspire to. Not only that, in any government – and perhaps especially so in Japan – it’s imperative to maintain public confidence in the financial system. Even though the MOF is recognized as a relic of the war era, it’s still got an essential role to play.

  5. Was Horie’s arrest not another “Revenge of the Bureaucrats” type attack on LDP power? I mean, the inoshishi actually ran for office on the LDP ticket.

    Also, you make a good point about Abe having no domestic policy ideas, but will he not be the most aggressively right-wing PM Japan has had in ages? Nakasone said some dumb things, but Abe seems to be daydreaming of a full-fledged invasion of NK.

  6. I almost met Koizumi in Mongolia the other day. Kind of. I was in a car, leaving the airport, when all the cars on the road had to pull over and let him travel to the airport unimpeded.

  7. Adamu – I’d agree with that. I may even cut and paste – sorry, “rework” – a couple of points for the next time I’m inevitably asked about Murphy’s piece.

    Marxy – Not sure what the catalyst was for Horie’s arrest. It’s certainly true that some of the offences look remarkably similar to regular practices at other firms so it might look as if Horie was targeted specifically while others are ignored. On the other hand, given the range of indictments in the recent past, it is possible that these practices won’t be acceptable in the future and Horie was a high-profile catch in a broader crackdown. Recruit Chairman Hiromasa Ezoe wasn’t the only one rigging IPOs for his friends back in 1986 either but he was the one arrested. In fact, Japan’s justice system, where an arrest still leads to a guilty verdict in a high proportion of cases, now appears more successful at prosecuting financial market crimes than the US or the UK which is an odd turn of events.

  8. Horie technically ran as an independent who supported Koizumi’s reform bill, and not as a member of the LDP ticket. The LDP candidate was a postal reform opponent, so Koizumi basically ran Horie against what is supposed to be his own party. I think had Horie won, this would have been more widely recognized as the radical move that it was.

  9. Here’s the thing about Abe. I called him boring, but he really does make some forceful, straight-sounding comments on the subjects he cares about, which is what makes him so popular.

    But the worry I hear from some people is that he’s too young and unlike the savvy “seikyoku no Koizumi” he’ll be even more beholden to the interest groups (izokukai etc) he’s been courting.

    Also, what I think we’re seeing in Abe’s “pre-emptive attack” “getting the ability to and other supposedly hawkish statements is less like fantasizing about invasion but more like posturing between Japan, Korea, NK, and China, much like the Yasukuni visits. It’s a dangerous chess game to be sure, because once Abe makes such a statement he puts the ball in NK/China’s court and they could do something that could force Japan’s hand to avoid losing face.

  10. Indeed, as were some of the other pushes for government transparency/e-govt and all that. Koizumi doesn’t necessarily deserve credit for things that simply expanded during his term in office, so sorry if I made it sound that way. What I was getting at is not that Koizumi accomplished those things, but that there is a great deal of political change going on in Japan that the Murphy article doesn’t seem to acknowledge.

    Here’s a Japanese explanation of the FOIA system:

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