Japan’s Ultimate Insider: The Premier’s Secretary
By STEPHANIE STROM
Published: June 26, 2001
Prime Minister Jun ichiro Koizumi is slight and dapper. His secretary, Isao Iijima, is rotund and rumpled.
Mr. Koizumi is a loner whose idea of a nice evening is listening to opera at home. Mr. Iijima's pearl-white cell phone rarely stops bleating, and his evenings are crammed with politically strategic dinners. The prime minister hates smoking. His secretary is rarely without a cheap cigarette in hand or mouth.
''In every way, Koizumi and I are like water and oil,'' said Mr. Iijima, 55, who has been Mr. Koizumi's adviser and right-hand man for many years.
But it is their Sprat-like relationship that has propelled Mr. Koizumi, 59, to the pinnacle of political power in Japan, confounding everyone from ruling Liberal Democratic Party power brokers to pundits.
Their attempts to shake up the rigid bureaucracy, and the kantei, or prime minister's press office, are raising many eyebrows but also getting Mr. Iijima almost as much adoring ink from the establishment press as his boss.
Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of Insideline, a newsletter on politics, and a contributor to The Oriental Economist, an English-language newsletter, is one of the many analysts saying such glowing profiles are deserved.
''He's a very, very exceptional character in Japanese politics,'' Mr. Toshikawa said of Mr. Iijima. ''He has served Mr. Koizumi more than 30 years and knows his mind, but he himself is also quite a distinguished policy expert, not just on welfare but also regarding telecommunications, fiscal policy and other matters.''
Certainly the prime minister and his aide seem intent on changing Japan. Mr. Iijima, for instance, recently rattled the kantei press club by inviting seven representatives of Japan's lively and somewhat gossipy weekly and monthly magazines to lunch.
Such publications have long been barred from the official press club, whose 101 members were until recently the principal conduit through which the public received official news relating to the prime minister.
But Mr. Koizumi's rakish demeanor and populist talk play far better in the non-establishment press, and so Mr. Iijima, who has cultivated ties to the weeklies and monthlies for years, provided them a measure of access that had been completely denied. ''Koizumi's whole plan is to end the power of vested interests and old-fashioned customs, including the privileged circle of journalists,'' Mr. Toshikawa said.
Mr. Iijima is also busy tweaking the bureaucracy, which has long dictated to politicians and prime ministers, although its power is fading fast. Typically four ministries -- Trade and Industry, Foreign Affairs, Finance and the Police Agency -- assign one of their senior bureaucrats to become secretaries to the prime minister, giving them a direct pipeline to him.
But Mr. Koizumi, with his secretary's strong encouragement, aims to replace those secretaries with other distinguished bureaucrats of his own choice, younger and not necessarily from those ministries. ''They are aiming to destroy that system,'' Mr. Toshikawa said.
Flouting that system seems to work for Mr. Iijima. His peers in Nagatacho, Tokyo's Capitol Hill, are almost to a man -- and in rare cases, a woman -- critical of him, though almost always off the record. Good political secretaries, after all, never, ever allow themselves to be quoted by name, a convention Mr. Iijima regularly ignores.
In Japanese politics, the ''secretary'' is much more than the title might imply. He and his peers are part chief of staff, part campaign strategist and part press officer, as well as zealous keepers of their bosses' deepest secrets. It is the secretary who must remember supporters' weddings and funerals and sons and daughters, as well as have an acute understanding of the finer points of public policy and campaign financing.
Mr. Iijima offered a humorous take on the job in a best-selling book, ''A House of Representatives Secretary: True but Laughable Stories From Nagatacho.'' The book was published anonymously, but Mr. Iijima's peers instantly identified him as the author, a credit he seems more than happy to accept.
''He should be ashamed of himself,'' sniffed Yosuke Ozawa, secretary to a senior governing party politician, in a rare public comment. ''In our world a secretary must never show others the inner workings of his job. We must always be in the shadows of our politicians.''
Mr. Koizumi's shadow would not even begin to hide Mr. Iijima's majestic 220-pound girth, never mind his arrogance and gregariousness. Mr. Iijima cuts such a large figure that he has on occasion been mistaken for the boss, not the subordinate.
And in fact, Mr. Iijima stands in for Mr. Koizumi, courting supporters, listening to petitions and kissing babies so that his boss can avoid any hint of scandal and focus on policy and the internal political maneuvering in the Liberal Democratic Party.
Mr. Iijima said Mr. Koizumi had attended only one wedding party held by a supporter in his entire 30-year political career and never returned to his district after his five Cabinet appointments to accept the customary congratulations and courtesy calls from his backers, a tradition called ''okuni iri.''
''I don't allow it,'' Mr. Iijima said. ''Many new ministers spend all their time entertaining their supporters and ignoring their jobs, but I told Koizumi's supporters that he became a minister to support all the Japanese people, not just his constituents, and so no one calls too much to bother him.''
Instead, Mr. Iijima pays frequent visits to Mr. Koizumi's district, a bedroom community an hour and a half south of Tokyo by train.
''When I go to the shotengai'' -- the main street of a Japanese town -- ''I don't have to pay for anything,'' he said. ''Everyone comes up to me and says eat this, eat that, and when I go home the trunk of my car is full of food.''
He is fiercely protective of his boss, although he never uses the honorific ''san'' when speaking of him or to him, and his caution has paid off. Mr. Koizumi is widely regarded as one of the cleanest and most scrupulous politicians in Japan.
When the prime minister traveled to Okinawa last week to commemorate the World War II battle there and reassure local residents that he intended to address their concerns about United States military bases there, he flew on a regularly scheduled commercial flight on his secretary's orders.
And if President Bush expects to be presented with some choice Japanese lacquerware or perhaps a samurai sword during Mr. Koizumi's visit to Washington this coming weekend, he is likely to be disappointed.
''We are not thinking about taking along souvenirs or anything like that,'' Mr. Iijima said. ''I just hope that President Bush and Koizumi will talk about policies and enhancing ties between the two countries, which has been one of Koizumi's chief goals.''
Much time has been devoted to speculation about Mr. Iijima's relationship with Mr. Koizumi's two elder sisters, who have reportedly governed the prime minister's every move, including his famous divorce in 1982. In particular, Nobuko Koizumi is known to keep a tight fist on Mr. Koizumi's political funds.
But not surprisingly, Mr. Iijima says the sisters march to his drumbeat. ''Everyone in the family has to absolutely obey me,'' he said.
The other subject of hot debate is how Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Iijima hooked up. Mr. Iijima hails from a small town in Nagano prefecture, not anywhere close to Mr. Koizumi's home base of Yokosuka, and it is unusual for a politician to choose a secretary, the ultimate patronage apointee, from outside his district.
Those in the know believe that the story is rather prosaic. ''I've heard that coincidentally, just after Mr. Iijima quit a private company, he was introduced to Mr. Koizumi, who had just lost his attempt to gain a seat in Parliament,'' Mr. Toshikawa said. ''They hit it off, and Mr. Koizumi's sisters didn't object, and there it is.''
But Mr. Iijima says there is more to it. He explained that he had declined offers to be a secretary to two other ''big name'' politicians, whom he refused to identify. ''I wanted to work for someone closer to me in age, sort of weak and without a lot of money, for someone from an urban district so I didn't have to know the local dialect and for someone who wasn't dirty.''
Mr. Koizumi apparently fit the bill.
For all his bonhomie and sauciness, Mr. Iijima treads carefully. He never drinks, even though beer- and sake-soaked evenings seem to be requisites for building the kinds of information networks he commands.
Political analysts and reporters say that failing to have found any scandals in Mr. Koizumi's past, his enemies in the party have been scrutinizing the past activities of his secretary and others close to him. They say rumors are circulating that he has connections to a major crime family, rumors that Mr. Iijima denies.
''I have absolutely no such connection to the underworld,'' he said. ''Of course, any dirty person would say that, but some people have even recommended that I have a security detail, because I have always fought against gangsters.''
Although there has been some speculation that Mr. Iijima's taste for fine watches, expensive ties and tailored shirts is financed by payoffs from medical supply companies for his help in obtaining orders from the national health system, Mr. Iijima says he has been careful to eschew such connections.
He said that typically, when a politician becomes a minister, political contributions go up by as much as 70 percent, but that when Mr. Koizumi headed a ministry, his funds dwindled by 40 percent. ''He would decline all donations from related industries, even flowers,'' Mr. Iijima said.
''Every time he became a minister, I would hear people say, 'If we could crush Iijima, Koizumi will crash,' '' Mr. Ijima said. ''And it seems those people sought any type of scandal, money or women, but they couldn't find anything.''
That is not to say he thinks himself a saint. ''The reason is that I have a sister who was paralyzed in a traffic accident, and she's in an institution in Nagano,'' he said. ''If this dependent sister is left alone, what would happen to her? So I cannot do anything dirty, even if I wanted to.''