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August 19, 2002

Koizumi: Caesar Without Brutus?

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

Prof. J. Sean CurtinThe surprise resignation from the Diet of the colourful former Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, marks a highly significant juncture in the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi. Unlike so many of his predecessors, Koizumi is currently in an almost unique position of having no potential rivals within parliament. It took both Stalin and Chairman Mao almost a decade to accomplish what scandal and ill-health have done for the Japanese premier in just half a year. Koizumi is now firmly entrenched in office, even if he may not actually be in power.

In her memoirs Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, astutely observed that one of the most essential elements in being a successful politician is a large share of good luck. While Koizumi may not be in the same league as Thatcher, the last six months of his premiership strongly resemble a British political-thriller novel in which the ruthless politician uses cunning and guile to dispose of his rivals one by one. Chance rather than political skill and skulduggery appear to be behind Koizumi's amazing streak of good fortune.

It all began back in January, when Koizumi sacked his popular foreign minister and potential rival Makiko Tanaka. At the time it seemed like a bad move and the Prime Minister's popularity took a nosedive. However, by February Koizumi's position looked stronger when his rival in the LDP presidential poll, the former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, was diagnosed with a heart valve disorder, which required surgery. Then in March, Taku Yamasaki, the current LDP Secretary General and a potential Prime Minister, was exposed in popular magazines as being involved in lurid extramarital affairs. April saw another pretender to the throne, former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato, forced to leave the Lower House after his top secretary was arrested for tax evasion and he himself became the focus of a political funds scandal. Also in April, Yohei Kono, the influential former Foreign Minister, underwent a major operation to treat cirrhosis of the liver. As spring turned to summer, the LDP suspended Makiko Tanaka from the party for two years over allegations that she misappropriated the government salaries of her aides. Following the new fad in here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians, Tanaka eventually resigned from the Diet in August.

At present, the only real threat to Koizumi's reign comes from outside the Diet in the form of the controversial Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. However, if Gov. Ishihara wishes to depose Koizumi, he would have to give up his current post to run for a parliamentary seat. Despite the Governor's current popularity, the maneuvering necessary to make him a real contender, makes the actual threat to Koizumi a rather remote possibility.

If top politicians ever allow themselves a moment to reflect on the chance turns of good fortune, then Koizumi must be smiling with self-confidence over the extraordinary hand which fate has dealt him. For the moment, the national Diet is void of any Brutus capable of thrusting a political dagger to steal the premier's crown. Now is the time for Koizumi to cross the Rubicon and take decisive action to implement the radical structural reforms he promised upon taking office in April 2001. So far, resistance from backroom powerbrokers in his own party has been blamed for the lack of any substantive reform on such issues as the non-performing loans crisis, caps on new government bond issues or the real opening up of state enterprises to private sector entrepreneurs.

However, with no rival for his post on the horizon, Koizumi must attempt to seize the actual reins of power and not just be content with holding office. The old muddle-along-and-see-what-happens policies of his lackluster predecessors did absolutely nothing to improve Japan's economic position over the last decade. What the Japanese people are desperately crying out for is a sense of direction, the decade-long journey to nowhere must end.

Caesar knew his destiny and now Koizumi must cast the die. Should he fail to grasp this opportunity, Japan will continue to drift in the competitive seas of the global economy. As Brutus observed, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries." Good fortune has given Koizumi a golden chance to move Japan forward, he must take it for the sake of the country.

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