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Japanese Lose Faith in Koizumi - 2002-04-24

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office one year ago with a pledge to jump-start the country's fragile economy and shake up the ingrained political establishment. But many Japanese are disillusioned and say they no longer view their leader as a reformer.

Junichiro Koizumi took Japan by storm last April. He swept to power on a pledge to radically overhaul the world's second largest economy and rid politics of decades of backroom dealing. He quickly became a media superstar, releasing a compact disc of his favorite Elvis Presley songs and writing a weekly e-mail to thousands of supporters. Fans purchased truckloads of Koizumi memorabilia such as calendars and mugs.

Mr. Koizumi's popularity revived the Liberal Democratic Party, which swept the polls in a legislative election held in July. But by January, Mr. Koizumi's popular support started to show visible signs of erosion. One Tokyo worker in her 30's says that at first she expected a lot from Mr. Koizumi because of his clean image. She thought he would be a good leader but has been disappointed.

Stephen Reed, political science professor at Tokyo's Chuo University, explains why.

"Essentially he has no accomplishments during his first year in office. He has not kept any of his promises."

According to recent newspaper polls, the majority of Japanese now say they do not approve of the prime minister's performance. A survey by the widely-read Mainichi newspaper shows 57-percent of respondents say Mr. Koizumi has failed to live up to their expectations.

Even his supporters, such as this young Tokyo-based physician, say Mr. Koizumi must focus on fulfilling his electoral promises. She says that Mr. Koizumi's strength is his reformist attitude. However, she notes that he has not yet met his goals.

Professor Reed says Mr. Koizumi's public standing began to drop in late January after he fired his popular foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, over a feud with a veteran legislator. Many interpreted the move as a shift towards the old-guard political system of vested interests and cozy ties that Mr. Koizumi had vowed to clean up.

"His popularity was clearly a matter of the Tanaka firing. It was not a matter of firing a popular person and therefore losing support," Professor Reed said. "There was a fight within the party where Ms. Tanaka was the clear leader of the reformers and Suzuki Muneo was the clear leader of anti-reformers and Mr. Koizumi appeared to be taking the side of the anti-reformers. People lost hope that he was going to actually do something."

Optimism in Mr. Koizumi has also been damaged by the ailing Japanese economy, now in its worst post-war recession.

Japan's unemployment rate is hovering near record levels of more than five percent and corporate bankruptcies are climbing. Many fear the prime minister's pledged reforms will result in even more job losses. The country is also struggling with deflation, or falling prices, and a mountain of bad loans continues to burden the banking sector. The international financial community is losing confidence in Mr. Koizumi's economic policies.

Gregory Clark is the President of Tama University in Tokyo.

"Policies that he has adopted are the exact opposite of policies needed for economic recovery. The economy is starved of demand and the first move he made when he came to power was to cut demand further, namely to cut government spending," Mr. Clark said. "As well, he eroded confidence quite a lot by allowing a number of companies to go bankrupt."

Professor Clark notes that a series of recent corruption scandals involving several high-ranking LDP members appear to be further weighing on Mr. Koizumi's public standing, even though he is not directly involved.

"These scandals are not his fault. On the contrary, the fact that they are being exposed is a credit to him and to his moves to reform the political situation here, Professor Clark said. "What the scandals do is put further discredit on his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and I suppose that to some extent this bounces off onto him. It certainly does lot of damage to his popularity and already there is talk about finding a successor."

On the international front, Mr. Koizumi has repeatedly angered China and South Korea by paying respects at a memorial honoring not only Japan's war dead, but a number of convicted World War II war criminals. This, observers say, has undermined his efforts to deepen Japan's relationship with its neighbors.

Political analysts here expect Mr. Koizumi to remain in power for a year or more, but predict he is unlikely to carry out the sweeping reforms he promised one year ago.