Analysis: Japan's PM as Herbert Hoover

MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- Two years ago, we suggested in United Press International analysis that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could become Japan's Franklin Roosevelt, but instead he has ended up as his nation's Herbert Hoover.

When Koizumi won his shock primary victories he faced the challenge of transforming Japan and rescuing it from a decade of recession and despair. And his credentials to do so were very promising. After a decade of mediocrity and drift that was directed by a succession of mediocre gerontocrats, he offered the first serious hope for positive change. But it hasn't worked out that way.


Koizumi, like successful leaders who have transformed national politics in Japan and other nations before him, was a strange amalgam of opposites. He had always been an elite inside-the-track operator yet, at the same time, a genuine independent maverick. He won the leadership of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in April 2001 after a triumph in national party election primaries.

In a nation and a political party where being neatly but anonymously dressed had been a fetish of success for decades, Koizumi dared to be different. He liked to look younger than his years -- he is now 61. He sported a sartorial self-indulgence previously unimaginable in the LDP. He wore his hair long and tousled in the style of an aging 1970s swinger, and he liked bold ties.


This has earned him the wrath of the gray men who ran the LDP with iron hands in silken gloves for decades, but the Japanese public loved it. Like their fellow island nation, the British on the other side of the world, they have always had a soft spot for colorful and lovable eccentricity, and they had not had any of that to enjoy in mainstream politics for decades. For more than a decade, they were mired in a recession, too.

Like the two Roosevelts in the United States, Koizumi was a genuine reformer ready to shake up a comfortable old political-business system that had stagnated for decades and become unresponsive to popular concerns and current problems. And, also like FDR, he offered the prospect of knowing the system from the inside out. He also shared FDR's innate confidence of a political aristocrat who gave the impression he knew exactly what to do with it.

Koizumi came from an entire dynasty of ruling LDP political barons. His father served as Japan's defense minister. His grandfather was deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament. By the time Koizumi became prime minister, he was a 29-year veteran of the lower house himself. He first won election in 1972 from Tokyo's Kanagawa suburb and had been re-elected within pause -- as privileged LDP princes expect to be -- without interruption 10 times thereafter. He had held Cabinet positions four times -- three times as Health minister, once as Posts and Telecommunications minister.


He enjoyed every advantage of the privileged insider in his youth. He took a degree from Keio University in Tokyo, the equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge in Britain or the Ivy League colleges in the United States. And when he was 28, he was given the job of secretary to future Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.

Like FDR and his personal hero Winston Churchill, Koizumi was no idealistic innocent or ignorant outsider. He had known for three decades how things get down inside the smoke-filled rooms that really run Japan. But, also like Churchill and the Roosevelts, his privileged background and dizzying early access to power created within him the high achiever and aristocrat's deep confidence in his own judgment and destiny.

This made him very different from the hundreds of publicly humble and self-effacing loyal minions who came from far-more modest backgrounds. They saw unquestioning loyalty and patience as the only way to climb the LDP's seniority-bound ranks. He despised that approach and made no secret of it.

He was always energetic and able, but like Churchill in the British Conservative Party in the 1920s and 30s, the LDP's more cautious -- and unimaginative -- leaders used him but never liked or trusted him. He was held down in the cul-de-sac of Health and Welfare minister three times. There was a glass ceiling above which he was never allowed to rise.


But in his two years as prime minister, he has found that now he is on the other side of that "glass ceiling" he is still trapped by it, not from rising to the top, but from exerting any effective influence down below his own level.

For the "Iron Triangle" of venerable LDP power brokers, bureaucrats in the ministries of Economics and International Trade and the fiscal barons of Tokyo's banks have slowed, diluted and blocked his every move to reform Japan. Koizumi was able to get a little done, but it was like swimming fast in a bowl of molasses or taking a brisk run through a Louisiana swamp. The smallest change took exhausting months, and whenever a new one was made, it seemed achievements he thought he had finally won were being corroded.

For at the end of the day, Koizumi proved a one-man band. He was never able to translate his early sweeping personal popularity -- now long-since vanished -- into creating an effective parliamentary coalition for change. He had given the appearance of swinging unconformity. But by rising up through the old LDP and using it as his power base, he made himself dependent on the very people he had flouted -- and who had disdained him in return -- for so long. They have been getting their revenge, inch by excruciating inch, ever since.


Today, Japan remains mired in recession and gloom and the only people who seem energized and active are the old guard of the iron triangle, now aggressively reasserting their old control of financial policy to weaken the yen and pursue their old, long-since-disproved and discredited panacea of export-led growth without the need for any painful or unsettling major restructuring at home.

Koizumi no longer has the clout to stop them. His political power has gone the way of his long-forgotten popularity. He is wallowing in the water without direction and without hope. Herbert Hoover would have recognized the feeling.

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