- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

Widely hailed as a "maverick" and "reformer" by the Japanese press, Junichiro Koizumi, elected president of Japans ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday and chosen as prime minister yesterday by the national Diet, campaigned under the slogan "Change the LDP, Change Japan."

He offered several radical schemes for Japan´s future, including an end to the faction system in the LDP and direct election of the prime minister. The extreme nature of these ideas makes them unlikely to come to fruition, but his less original musings on Japanese foreign policy and the future role of Japan´s military are more likely to emerge as the hallmarks of Mr. Koizumi´s stint as prime minister.

Mr. Koizumi´s victory comes as an increasingly unpopular LDP warily faces parliamentary elections in July. His ideas were a voice for change but offered little real threat to the party´s more conservative elements.

The choice of LDP president involved a two-tiered voting system this year, with each of the LDP´s 47 prefectural chapters getting three votes and another 346 votes coming from LDP parliamentarians. Mr. Koizumi won 123 of the 141 prefectural votes, plus 157 votes from Diet members, giving him 298 votes to 155 for Ryutaro Hashimoto, the incumbent.

His overwhelming support from prefectural LDP chapters resulted largely from the fear that the LDP would have little chance in upcoming elections with a stereotypical candidate.

Mr. Koizumi can position himself as a freethinker, but when it comes to actual policies, making extreme suggestions is the same as making no suggestions they are untenable goals.

Though a radical in domestic politics, the new prime minister is offering an incremental and conservative platform of foreign policies. In his first news conference following the party presidential vote, he called publicly for a revision of Japan´s postwar constitution to allow the country to possess a military.

Mr. Koizumi said: "It is not natural that the Self Defense Forces are not the military," adding that Japan should not have a constitution under which its defense forces are declared unconstitutional.

Japan´s constitution, produced by U.S. occupation forces after Japan´s defeat in World War II, denies Japan the right to maintain "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential." Also in Article 9, Chapter II of the constitution, titled "Renunciation Of War," the constitution states: "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

These limits have long freed Tokyo from making difficult decisions. Without the right of a standing military, Japan has relied on the United States to provide for its national defense and security. At the same time, Japan has built a Self Defense Force comparable in all but name to the armed forces of many other advanced countries.

While Tokyo has steadily moved toward changing the constitution, particularly Article 9, Mr. Koizumi is apparently ready to accelerate the process and thrust the debate into the public spotlight. Riding on his populist and reformist credentials, he is taking a position similar to that of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a former LDP member and neo-nationalist who supports a more independent Japanese foreign policy, including a strong military.

While much attention is on Mr. Koizumi´s reformist credentials, his foreign policy initiatives bear watching closely. At this point, he is simply a conventional Japanese leader who happens to say unconventional things.

As Japan faces a systemic economic crisis with little chance of recovery or reform through conventional methods, the appearance of a new prime minister who promotes constitutional change and establishment of a true Japanese military may well mark a major shift in East Asian relations. Seoul and Beijing already are expressing concern that Mr. Koizumi is displaying nationalistic tendencies.

While Japan is not about to embark on a new path of regional conquest, Mr. Koizumi may herald a radical turning point in Japanese politics and mind-set, reviving and redefining Japan´s national identity.

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