Sun, Sep 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Koizumi riding high as Japan sheds its cocoon

The Japanese prime minister's recent election victory will permit him to wield considerable influence abroad, with the backing of the nation's voters

By Richard Halloran

The stunning electoral victory engineered by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last week ought to make leaders in Washington, Beijing, Taipei, Pyongyang, Seoul and at the UN sit up and take note because it marks a great leap forward in Japan's emergence from the passive and pacifist cocoon in which it had wrapped itself since the end of World War II 60 years ago.

Foreign policy didn't figure much in the election campaign, but the consequences of the outcome are striking. The foreign policy and security posture of every nation is rooted in domestic politics and Koizumi's big win will permit him to wield considerable influence beyond the shores of Japan.

In the more powerful of the two houses in Japan's Diet, or parliament, the prime minister's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 296 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives. Added to that 55-seat margin over a majority are 31 seats won by the New Komeito, the LDP's junior partner. Parliamentary leaders around the world would salivate to have that much clout.

Many who follow Japanese politics were startled by the results.

Said Thomas Berger, a scholar at Boston University: "I can only marvel at the breadth and depth of Koizumi's victory. Koizumi even outdid the upper estimates for the possible LDP margin of victory."

Similarly, Sheila Smith, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said that Koizumi had earned "a place in history as one of Japan's most masterful political strategists." He had gambled by calling an election after his own party had voted down a bill to privatize the nation's postal savings system.

Although the prime minister considered that a vital piece of reform legislation, his real intent was to win undisputed command over his party and the legislature. For the most part, those who opposed him were defeated.

For several years, Japan has been moving gradually to shed the constraints under which it has operated in the international realm for nearly six decades. Some Japanese have asserted that their nation should become "normal." Concurrent with that has been the regime of Koizumi, who became prime minister in April 2001.

While several domestic issues were debated during the campaign, Koizumi's attributes as a political leader seemed to override all else. Many Japanese said the voters liked the way he stood up for reform in Japan during a resurgence of national pride.

Koizumi's victory will make more likely a controversial revision of Japan's constitution. Mainichi Shimbun, a leading newspaper in Tokyo, found that 84 percent of those elected to the new house favored removing political restrictions on Japan's armed forces. The socialists and communists can be counted on to oppose that vociferously.

In addition, Koizumi is expected to insist that Japan, whose bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council has been blocked so far, be given a greater say in UN deliberations. Japan is second only to the US in financial contributions to the UN, providing 18.8 percent of the UN budget last year.

That is more than the combined contributions of the UK, France, China and Russia, the other four permanent members of the Security Council.

The US will have a year to complete current negotiations with Tokyo over realigning US military forces in Japan. Those talks should go well because Koizumi values his nation's alliance with the US and is a political ally and personal friend of US President George W. Bush. He has said, however, that he plans to step down a year from now; his replacement might be an unknown quantity.

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