- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Concluding arguably the most successful premiership in Japanese postwar history, term-limited Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi left office this week, succeeded by Shinzo Abe, who, at 52, became Japan’s first leader to have been born since World War II.

Five-and-a-half years ago, Japan was still mired in the economic and political malaise of its “lost decade,” which followed the bursting of its real-estate and stock-market bubbles in 1990. Amazingly, Mr. Koizumi, who had served in Japan’s parliament for 30 years as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), won the 2001 race by declaring war on the very political system that had kept his party in power for 45 of the previous 46 years. In a stunning appeal to the LDP’s grass-roots, he promised economic reforms that would cause substantial pain in the short run (“Reform with No Sacred Cows”). He also campaigned on political reforms that would marginalize the LDP’s long-dominant faction system (“Change the LDP, Change Japan”). Mr. Koizumi achieved an unexpected victory by overwhelmingly defeating a former premier who represented the LDP’s largest and most powerful faction.

Armed with more charisma and nerve than raw political muscle, Mr. Koizumi began pursuing his gargantuan tasks. Into a political system that had operated on consensus and conformity for nearly half a century, he introduced a level of leadership that was unprecedented. More often than not, Mr. Koizumi led the masses in order to force his and their will on his often recalcitrant parliamentary colleagues. In what appears to have been a successful effort to turn around Japan’s long-suffering, recession-plagued economy, which has now achieved three consecutive years of growth exceeding 2 percent, he introduced market forces, deregulation and business accountability in place of near-total reliance upon pork-barrel spending, which had raised Japan’s public debt to record levels. One of his longtime goals has been the privatization of Japan’s postal system, whose $3 trillion in savings and insurance make it the world’s largest bank. In August 2005, after parliament’s upper house rejected a compromise deal that would delay privatization until 2017, Mr. Koizumi dissolved the lower house; expelled 37 LDP members who had voted against his plan; and called a snap election. Mr. Koizumi achieved a resounding victory and a popular mandate in September. His postal-privatization plan sailed through both houses of parliament in October.

In foreign policy, Mr. Koizumi has exhibited the same leadership that has characterized his economic and political initiatives. In the country’s largest operations since World War II, Japan dispatched non-combat forces to Iraq. In response to the growing threat from North Korea, Japan has participated with the United States in missile-defense activities. Even though China and Japan have become each other’s largest trading partner in recent years, Mr. Koizumi has left no doubt that he believes Japan’s alliance with the United States is paramount.

While not fully achieving all his goals, Mr. Koizumi has nonetheless proved himself to have been indispensable in reversing Japan’s economic and political decline and in expanding Japan’s role on the world stage. That he managed to do so by sheer force of will in a society not accustomed to such a leadership style in recent decades makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.



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