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Turning Point for Japanese Politics in 2001 - 2001-12-17


The year 2001 was a turning point in Japanese politics. The country's first media-savvy prime minister took office, and won public support with a pledge to get the economy moving again. However, Junichiro Koizumi faces tough challenges.

Junichiro Koizumi became Japan's prime minister in April, a dark-horse who won on a promise to reinvigorate the cleaning up Japan's faltering economy.

He has captured the public's affection in a way that no other Japanese leader has managed to do. Since taking office, he has consistently maintained popularity ratings of 80-percent or more, and has used e-mail, the Internet and more traditional forms of media to win backing.

In a television commercial, Mr. Koizumi asked the public to empower him and said that his political party will try to adapt to changing times. He said that Japan, too will be transformed.

A divorcee who sports colorful ties and wears his hair in a trademark permanent wave, Mr. Koizumi broke the conservative image of a Japanese leader. He appointed a record number of women to his cabinet.

However, critics say Mr. Koizumi has achieved little to breathe life into the moribund economy, which has been in a deep slump for a decade.

Soon after taking office, he released a blueprint for economic revival, which includes cleaning up the banks' bad loans and slashing public spending.

But a growing number of Japanese worry that Mr. Koizumi has not delivered on his pledge. Many people share the view of Tokyo housewife Chieko Takahashi. "I cannot describe one accomplishment Mr. Koizumi has made," she said. "I wonder what has happened to his promises."

Takashi Inoguchi, a professor of politics at the University of Tokyo, said it unrealistic to expect Mr. Koizumi to solve Japan's problems in less than a year. "Japan's economic condition has not changed that much because of its complex structure," he said. "However, Mr. Koizumi is giving the impression that he is trying to make progress, which is good."

Supporters say Mr. Koizumi was understandably sidetracked from his plan by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. They point out that he was busy getting Parliament to endorse legislation to let Japanese troops provide non-combat support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

While his administration has cemented already strong U.S.-Japan ties, it appears to have weakened links with Japan's most important regional neighbors.

The government's approval in April of a series of controversial history textbooks offended China and South Korea. Critics say the books distort Japan's record of World War II atrocities.

The relationships were further damaged when the prime minister visited a controversial war shrine in August. The shrine honors the country's dead soldiers, including convicted war criminals.

Mr. Koizumi traveled to both Beijing and Seoul in October to meet with the leaders there and calm growing tensions.

But it is in the Japanese capital that Mr. Koizumi's worst enemies lurk.

His party, the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is deeply divided by competing interests. Many powerful members oppose Mr. Koizumi's reforms because they could cost millions of jobs in industries such as farming and construction, which provide key LDP support.

Recently 53 LDP legislators formed a group to counter Mr. Koizumi's plans. Because of these lawmakers, and other opponents, it is unclear if he has the support to pass reform legislation. However, his cabinet has approved a plan to dismantle or privatize seven unprofitable state-run corporations.

Ron Bevacqua, an economist at Commerz Securities in Tokyo, said this resistance, coupled with Japan's stiff political structure, could limit Mr. Koizumi's achievements. "Mr. Koizumi has been hamstrung by institutional factors such as the weakness of the prime minister's office in general and by his own party, which is factionalized. … Even if he wanted to get all this stuff done, it is a long uphill battle that he is never really going to win," he said.

But many Japanese have not given up hope.

One Tokyo resident said that there is no one besides Mr. Koizumi in the LDP to carry out reforms. He noted that Mr. Koizumi has vowed to forge ahead even if it means destroying his party.

In the year ahead, Mr. Koizumi's main goal remains economic revival. It is not just the Japanese who are anxious for him succeed. Politicians and people around the world are eager to see the world's second largest economy help cushion the global recession by resolving some of its own problems.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001

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