Gunning for Reform

4 minute read
Richard J. Samuels

Everyone says Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is a “reformer.” The press has variously labeled him a “maverick,” a “lone wolf,” “unusual” and “colorful.” Certainly, Koizumi talks the talk of reform. Running for the premiership in 2001, he promised to pull up, root and branch, the causes of Japan’s economic malaise. He would force commercial banks to write off bad debts, privatize Japan’s postal savings system and eliminate factional politics within his deeply faction-ridden Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He insisted that he would not tolerate bureaucratic misconduct. He would reduce waste, clean up the environment and improve education.

The flashy Prime Minister grabbed headlines for these promises. But, as his critics have noted, many of Koizumi’s policies—particularly on the economy and the bureaucracy—have been chimerical at best. Instead, Koizumi should be recognized for another kind of far-reaching change he has aggressively pursued: national-security reform and, implicit in that, constitutional change. These policies, if Koizumi can continue implementing them during a second term, may cement his legacy and prove just as important to Japan’s future as overhauling the economy.

To understand Koizumi’s reform priorities, you have to understand how Japan’s postwar conservatives were divided between a decorous “mainstream” and a more bluntly nationalist “antimainstream.” Koizumi is the scion of a distinguished line of these antimainstreamers, a faction of conservative politicians who longed to revise the constitution imposed on Japan by the U.S. in 1947. Their leader was Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime Cabinet minister who was imprisoned for three years on war-crimes charges before becoming America’s favorite anticommunist Prime Minister in 1957. The antimainstream conservatives governed only until 1960, when their ambitions for rearmament and constitutional reform had raced too far ahead of public opinion, which was still shaped by painful war memories. But Kishi’s followers were never far from power. They cohabited the LDP and bided their time. One such man was the Prime Minister’s father, Junya Koizumi, who headed the Defense Agency in the early 1960s. The son’s first job in politics was as an aide to one of his father’s like-minded colleagues, Takeo Fukuda, who inherited the Kishi faction and became Prime Minister in 1976. On winning the premiership, Koizumi appointed Fukuda’s son, Yasuo Fukuda, as Chief Cabinet Secretary, and Kishi’s grandson, Shinzo Abe, as deputy chief Cabinet secretary.

The Prime Minister has followed in his father’s footsteps by taking highly symbolic steps to make Japanese foreign and security policy more muscular—something taboo to many of the mainstream LDP elders. He has made routine visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the war dead—including Class-A war criminals—are honored. Ignoring the extant interpretation of the constitution forbidding Japan from engaging in “collective defense,” Koizumi seized the opportunity provided by the 9/11 terrorist attacks to win Diet approval for the first dispatch since 1945 of Japanese warships out of the areas surrounding Japan. With Japanese naval tankers and destroyers in the Indian Ocean supporting U.S. and British forces, he successfully steered an emergency-powers bill through the Diet, authorizing military mobilization in the event of an attack on Japan—legislation that had been stalled since 1977, when it was first introduced by Fukuda. Koizumi’s latest reform was passage in July of an Iraq-reconstruction bill that approved the deployment of Japanese soldiers to Iraq.

The jewel in this reformer’s crown—indeed in the crown of the entire antimainstream movement—is now on the table. Breaking an earlier pledge to leave the constitution’s antiwar Article 9 alone, late last month Koizumi declared his intention to rewrite it. Although still divided, the Japanese public seems more willing than ever before to entertain this once-taboo reform.

In democracies, incumbents face the electorate with no choice but to defend their record. Koizumi is facing re-election having failed to reform the economy or the bureaucracy. To win, he will have to perform a sleight of hand by showcasing his security-policy achievements instead. In the end, these reforms may be truer to Koizumi’s character—and political lineage—than the superficial caricature of an economic visionary that carried him to power the first time.

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