Koizumi and Japanese Politics: Reform Strategies and Leadership Style, By Yu Uchiyama (内山 融)

Translated by Carl Freire

Routledge, 2010
214 pages, ISBN: 978-0-415-55688-0 (Hardback), £75.00

Review by Sean Curtin

In this impressive study Yu Uchiyama meticulously dissects the highly successful and by Japanese standards long lived administration of Junichiro Koizumi (26 April 2001 – 26 September 2006). Since stepping down from office, no Japanese prime minister has lasted longer than a year and none in the last two decades had such a reverberating impact on the Japanese political scene. How did Koizumi break the mould? Why was he able to deliver strong leadership and make significant reforms? Uchiyama, an associate professor at Tokyo University, uses a range of empirical and theoretical methods to clinically analyze and assess both Koizumi’s domestic and foreign policies.  He looks in depth at the policy-making processes, how Koizumi created a new modus operandi and the institutional forums which were established to accomplish his objectives. Koizumi’s flamboyant political style is also scrutinized and his premiership’s accomplishments are put in historical context.

In chapter 1, “Koizumi’s Management of Politics,” Uchiyama defines the key features of Koizumi’s colourful political style as Prime Minister, he notes, “He attached greater importance to making his appeals directly to the general public and winning their support than to building up his power base within the LDP (page 6).” While others have attempted this tactic, with the notable exception of Morihiro Hosokawa (August 1993 to April 1994), none have come close to Koizumi’s success. Throughout the book Uchiyama makes a series of comparisons with the charismatic and telegenic Hosokawa, who in many respects was a pro-type Koizumi. Unlike previous LDP leaders, Koizumi tended to ignore the powerful factions within his own party, instead seeking authority by appealing to the public. On this tactic, the author observes, “He was able to gain the upper hand over the party’s ‘forces of resistance’ by casting his approach as a struggle between good and evil and winning the public over to his side (page 16).” Fortunately for Koizumi the authority of the prime minister had been strengthened by reforms carried out by the Hashimoto administration (1996-8) and this combined with his generally high approval ratings gave Koizumi considerable clout. Utilizing the double barrels of enhanced prime-ministerial power and his huge personal popularity, Koizumi was able to direct policy like none of his predecessors or subsequent successors. This twin-edged blade allowed him to cut through the moribund bureaucracy and establish his own forums to create or reshape policy. One such key body was the pivotal Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (経済財政諮問会議).

Uchiyama also identifies another core feature of the Koizumi phenomenon, “he would not flinch. Once he had committed to a specific principle or idea he would not budge (page 22).” While in the domestic realm this key trait was generally a good quality, in the realm of foreign affairs it was to prove disastrous. Analysing Koizumi’s manner and speech, Uchiyama concludes (page 11) that Koizumi “stressed pathos (emotion, sentiment) over logos (rationality, well-defined language).” This is a theme he follows throughout the book, labelling him the “prime minister of pathos.”

On his accomplishments he write, “Koizumi achieved greater policy transformations than any prime minister before him thanks to his effective use of populist techniques and a string of reforms to the political system and government structure that preceded his term in office (page 9).” Despite this high praise and clinical style throughout the book, one gets the distinct impression that the Uchiyama feels a certain degree of academic distain for Koizumi’s crude methods and in the afterword (page 165) he admits as much, confessing, “I certainly cannot brush off my discomfort over his conduct of politics.”

Chapter 2, “Domestic Affairs – The battle over neoliberal reform” is a comprehensive and systematic analysis of how Koizumi reshaped the domestic policy making process, substantially reduced the influence of special interest lawmakers (族議員) and bureaucrats, and greatly strengthened the power of the prime minister. The book provides a highly detailed blueprint of how Koizumi managed to reform the domestic political agenda from the entrenched web of tangled vested interested that existed when he came to office. This chapter covers a huge tract of domestic policy ranging from the functioning of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy to the more complex Trinity Reform (三位一体の改革).  This section contains some superb reference material, illuminating charts and easy-to-understand tables which explain the various reforms in chronological order.

(Takenaka the key figure behind Koizumi’s domestic agenda)

Heizo Takenaka (竹中 平蔵), who served as Koizumi’s Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications as well as Minister of State for Privatization of the Postal Services, is singled out as the key figure behind Koizumi’s domestic agenda. This soft spoken academic was the driving intellectual force behind most of Koizumi’s ideas, Uchiyama states, “Takenaka involved himself directly and at length in detail work like the actual drafting of bills in the case of important policies such as postal privatization. Although this was unusual for a cabinet minister, he was able in this manner to prevent the ‘watering down’ of bills by the bureaucracy (page 77).” The author believes that successor administrations failed because they lacked a visionary Takenaka-type figure.

Chapter 2 also contains the ultimate piece of high wire “Koizumi theatre” (小泉劇場), the so called postal election in which Koizumi defied political gravity to win a landslide general election victory. After members of his own party voted down his flagship postal privatization bill in the Upper House, Koizumi dissolved the Lower House calling a snap general election. He expelled those lawmakers in his own party who voted against the law when it narrowly passed in the lower chamber and put up rival candidates in their constituencies. Normally when such a division occurs in a political party, the result is almost certain electoral defeat as a split party fighting itself normally divides its vote.  However, despite dire predictions from commentators, Koizumi beat the odds, proving that he understood the mood of the Japanese public better than any political pundit. After achieving such a stunning victory his political authority was supreme, even though he pledged to step down within a year of re-election, during his final 12 months he was no lame duck (also see page 134). Uchiyama clinically analyzes these momentous events, which in some respects are difficult to appreciate without the intense drama element of the time.

While the second chapter highlights some of Koizumi’s greatest achievements, the next chapter, “Foreign Relations: Closer to America, Farther from East Asia” charts some of its lows. Uchiyama notes, “In sharp contrast to his strategically pursued economic policies, the strategic coherence of his foreign policy must be described as relatively poor (page 79).” While ties with the US substantially improved, relations with China and South Korea hit rock bottom and foreign policy was at times highly erratic. One of the first major traumas of the Koizumi administration was the chaos caused by the sacking of the colourful Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka. She had been instrumental in getting Koizumi elected Party President, or as Uchiyama puts it (page 83), “The Koizumi administration took a hit for the dismissal of its ‘birth mother.’” Koizumi controversially supported the US invasion of Iraq and sent troops to help with postwar reconstruction, the author comments (page 92), “Bush was extremely grateful for Koizumi’s pro-US attitude, and the affectionate relations between the two rose to a new level.” Contrastingly, ties with Tokyo’s East Asian neighbours rapidly deteriorated during his tenure in office. His annual forays to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine generated enormous regional animosity, demonstrations and several riots. In the final year of his administration Koizumi became a Pariah with Chinese and Korean leaders refusing to meet him. His six annual visits to the controversial shrine along with the escalating tension and fallout they caused are carefully documented by Uchiyama who concludes, “Koizumi’s pilgrimages to Yasukuni shrine cast a large shadow on relations with China and South Korea (page 116).” One of the first acts of Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was to visit Beijing and Seoul to defuse tensions, all five post-Koizumi PMs have sought to improve ties and none has dared visit the contentious shrine. Other aspects of Koizumi foreign policy are examined including various territorial disputes, relations with North Korea, and Free Trade Agreements, inter alia.

(Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa (August 1993 to April 1994))

Chapter 4, “The Koizumi Administration in Historical and Theoretical Perspective” has some great analysis of postwar administrations and how the political system Koizumi encountered upon taking office had evolved. The role and power of the prime minister is also examined along with changes in the electoral system which enhanced the PM’s statue. The Hosokawa (1993-4) and Hashimoto (1996-8) administrations are both seen in some respects as reformist neoliberal forerunners of Koizumi, but both had limited impact due to their short tenures. Hashimoto is given credit for his administrative reforms which enhanced the power of the PM while the long term impact of the electoral changes initiated under Hosokawa are assessed. Koizumi successfully tapped into the Japanese public’s deep hunger for change, “Koizumi flew the banner of neoliberal reform and proclaimed that he would tear down the existing political structure (page 125).” His outsider status, popularist style, telegenic persona, poker-player political tactics combined with the enhanced power of his office allowed him to outflank his enemies and maintain high approval rating which sustained his administration. Uchiyama summarizes, “Koizumi had two sources of authority to draw upon, one being such institutional resources as the legal authority invested in his office and the other being his personal qualities (page 136).”

In the final chapter, “Legacies of the Koizumi Administration,” Uchiyama assessed Koizumi’s lasting impact on Japanese politics, noting “he overturned the established image of the Japanese prime minister” and “replaced a policy-making system that had been bogged down by vested interests with top-down decision-making (page 137).” He also highlights his significant achievements, “Koizumi accomplished policy changes that far exceeded anything thought possible until then” and “the Koizumi administration pursued policies that favoured the interests of the average citizen over sectional interests (page 138).” The negative aspects are also examined, Uchiyama sees the two most serious failings as increased social inequality and strained ties with Tokyo’s neighbours.

Uchiyama’s original 2007 Japanese language book on Koizumi (小泉政権 ― 「パトスの首相」は何を変えたのか) ended here, but this English language version has been slightly revised and expanded with an additional chapter added, “Postscript: The Koizumi and Abe Administrations,” looking at the successor administration of Shinzo Abe. After five ‘thrilling’ years of Koizumi the public wanted another ‘popular’ and ‘strong’ leader which was a key factor in the selection of the relatively youthful Abe as Prime Minister. However, Koizumi was an exceptionally hard act to follow and living up to the public’s expectations proved impossible for the hapless Abe. He lacked Koizumi’s style and charisma, so once his poll ratings began to slip the knives were out. Despite his attempts to cling on after a disastrous Upper House election defeat in July 2007, he was force to resign after just a year in office. Uchiyama’s verdict (page 157), “Abe could not fill the shoes of a ‘strong prime minister.’” The author concludes the book by observing, “The Koizumi administration constituted an epochal break in postwar political history, and its influence lingers strongly even today (page 164).”

Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda, was the antithesis of the Koizumi approach, signalling the LDP wanted to end the Koizumi experiment.  However, the Fukuda administration only chalked up a year as did that of following prime minister Taro Aso. He was defeated in a general election by Yukio Hatoyama, who could only manage eight months at the helm, while his replacement Prime Minister Naoto Kan was lucky to survive a serious challenge to his leadership after just three months in office. All of this has made Koizumi’s five years and five months seem like an eternity and the analysis in this superb book helps explain how he achieved such longevity.

Before ending this review, the excellent translation work of Carl Freire must be commended, he has done a first-rate translation and made this important publication accessible to a far greater global audience. He has also packet the book full of extremely useful Japanese language political terms, making it a handy reference source on this important period in politics. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese politics and in understanding the extraordinary Koizumi years.

Other related Japan Society Review articles

“Koizumi no Shori, Media no Haiboku” (Victory for Koizumi, Defeat for the Media), by Takashi Uesugi, Japan Society Review Issue 11

“Koizumi Kantei Hiroku” (Confidential Records of the Office of Prime Minister Koizumi), by Isao Iijima, Japan Society Review Issue 12

“Kozo Kaikaku No Shinjitsu: Takenaka Heizo Daijin Nisshi” (Truth of Structural Reforms: Diary of Minister Takenaka Heizo), by Heizo Takenaka, Japan Society Review Issue 12

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