The Japanese Berlusconi?

Shintar Ishihara
Shintar Ishihara; drawing by David Levine


Junichiro Koizumi, the new Japanese prime minister, has a most unusual hairdo—unusual, that is, for a conservative Japanese politician, not for a dashing country-and-western singer or an aging croupier. It is a long, voluminous affair wrapped around a narrow, hawkish head like an elegant gray bird’s nest.

The hair is part of the new prime minister’s image of fresh nonconformism. He likes to be known as a maverick, a henjin, a bit of a rebel in the musty chambers of Japanese power. Koizumi is an opera buff with a showman’s sense of timing, an admirer of Winston Churchill who promises to reform the political system and “destroy” all those who would stand in his way. Friends claim “he says what he thinks”; opponents accuse him of being a grandstander.1

As the conservative heir of a political family, he is perhaps not quite the rebel he appears to be, and has sometimes played to a right-wing gallery, but he is certainly the most arresting figure in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His televised performances in the Diet are watched by a huge audience fascinated by a politician who actually speaks without notes. Traditionally, mavericks have not thrived in Japanese politics; they tend to get cut down by blander men, whose general air of mediocrity often belies a gift for vicious infighting.

That Koizumi was elected LDP leader at all was owing to a minor revolt at the party convention held at a Tokyo martial arts stadium in March. Forty LDP members of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly stood outside the stadium handing out leaflets and calling for “the regeneration of the LDP.” They criticized the LDP leadership for clinging to an outmoded, opaque system, in which government posts are divvied up according to seniority and factional strength. LDP factions, or cliques, like parties within the party, revolve less around ideological differences than leaders who can generate enough cash to provide jobs—and campaign funds—for the boys. The system is designed to give all the bigger boys their turn in power, regardless of competence or popular support. The protesters warned that if this system persists, the LDP would “face the most tragic and worst scenario—that is, death as a political party.”

The protests hit a nerve, for the LDP has not been doing well of late. The last prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, was a disaster, a typical case of a mediocrity thrown up by factional horse-trading. (Before striking out on his own, Koizumi was in Mori’s faction.) The party suffered heavy losses in Lower House elections last June. Support in the cities is especially low; six incumbent and former cabinet ministers failed to hold on to their seats in Tokyo. So after ignoring the protests for as long as they could, the party elders decided, reluctantly, to let ordinary LDP members take part in party leadership elections. Seventy percent of the 487 votes would…

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