Yesterday we described Junichiro Koizumi’s unlikely selection as prime minister of Japan. It was unlikely because he ran as a reformer to lead a conservative party that had no interest in reform, but was desperate to survive as an entity. The disastrous administration of Yoshiro Mori—with single-digit approval ratings—had everyone in the party worried that they would get clobbered in the upper house election just a couple of months away.The whole thing is worth reading. So is a recent account in the Japan Times about Koizumi taking the extremely rare step of relieving two high-ranking bureaucrats of their duties.
Mind you, the LDP did not actually expect Koizumi to do too much in the way of reform; they were more interested in someone talking about a new broom sweeping clean than someone actually getting the broom out of the closet. The party elders were confident in their ability to keep things from getting out of hand.
They soon realized they had badly misjudged the situation. The long-suffering Japanese public have been subjected to politicians from the ruling party who don’t pretend to mean what they say, can’t be bothered to hide their disdain for the average voter, and save their remaining passion for their mistresses or money raising. When an eloquent politician appears with enthusiasm, energy, and ideas, and—most importantly—focuses his attention on the public’s concerns rather than trying to convince the public to focus on the politician’s concerns, the Japanese public repays that politician tenfold.
That’s just what happened with Koizumi. Desperate for a leader who acted like a real human being, still recovering from the disillusionment over the crushing of the first reform government during Morihiro Hosokawa’s term as prime minister in 1993-4, and believing that this was the last real chance to reform Japan’s political system, the public rewarded the off-beat, blunt Koizumi with popularity ratings that soared over 80%, unprecedented in Japan.
For the LDP, Koizumi was both a nightmare and a dream come true. Koizumi’s popularity also sent the popularity of the LDP skyrocketing. Under his leadership, the party won a stunning victory in the upper house election when their prospects verged on the hopeless just three months before. During the election campaign, Koizumi himself became the public symbol of the LDP; while the emphasis on an individual leading a party is the de facto standard in most Western political campaigns, it is extremely rare in Japan.
This came at a price for the party, however, and they first realized it with Koizumi’s Cabinet appointments. As we explained yesterday, the LDP is comprised of several factions. The primary objective in Cabinet appointments has been to apportion the spoils among the different factions according to their relative strength. Competence for the job is not a qualification, and neither the prime minister nor the rest of his Cabinet were selected to formulate policy—they were just asked to implement it.
Koizumi ignored these practices. He already represented a break with the past because he was the second prime minister in a row from the same faction. But he alienated the old guard in the party when he appointed to key Cabinet posts allies from his faction who shared his views instead of balancing factional interests. He even appointed economist Heizo Takenaka (second photo) to reform the banking sector and clean up the economy. (And he has succeeded; the worst is over for the banks and their bad debt problems and the stock market has rebounded).
UPDATE: The series continues with a post about Japan's New Generation. For many Japanese, the 1990s were a long Decade of Disillusionment after their economic bubble burst in 1989, and the dysfunctionalities of their political system became much more glaring. (The same can be said for the overly Japan-dependent economy of Hawai‘i.) For many North Americans and Europeans, however, the Great Disillusionment didn't hit with full force until 2000-2001. By now, even the elites are beginning to grasp the dysfunctionalities of politics and economics as usual.
But no one really seems to know what to do about it yet. The major disagreement is between the "What the hell? Let's try this, then!" crowd and the "Hell, no! You can't do that!" crowd. In other words, those who don't know what they can't do, and those who only know what they can't do. The other labels really don't mean much anymore. The tinkerers inspire trepidation; the status quo aunties inspire resignation. Neither group inspires confidence.