Sunday, April 27, 2008

Koizumi Junichiro, whipping boy

"The nonsense of public opinion that hopes for Pitcher Koizumi, ringleader in making an unequal society, to take the mound again."

So reads the headline of an opinion piece at JanJan by Sato Shuichi, a journalist and activist.

Sato uses an extended — and I mean extended — baseball metaphor to discuss the transfer of power from Mr. Koizumi to Mr. Abe to Mr. Fukuda and consider the possibility of Mr. Koizumi's taking the ball again.

As the headline suggests, Sato believes that Mr. Koizumi is uniquely to blame for growing inequality in Japan, and responsible for the tough political conditions faced first by Mr. Abe and now by Mr. Koizumi.

I want to take issue with this all-too-common assertion among left-of-center Japanese commentators and bloggers that Mr. Koizumi bears special responsibility for inequality in Japan.

Mr. Koizumi's government was far from perfect, and he certainly didn't deliver on all of his policy objectives. He often placed more attention on image than substance, hence the common put-down of his politics as being "theatrical." But he does not bear special blame for inequality in Japan, which had been increasing for nearly two decades prior to his premiership thanks to demographic change and the microeconomic response to the economic downturn (hiring more part-time employees while paying them less). Perhaps he could have done more to bolster welfare provisions and transfer payments to prefectures; Sato criticizes Mr. Koizumi for cutting subsidies to localities, especially education subsidies. But Sato fails to mention the economic constraints within which Mr. Koizumi was working, not least the sizable national debt that will inhibit future governments' efforts to strengthen Japan's safety net until it is reduced to more sustainable levels. And Mr. Koizumi gets no credit for Sato for attacking — for decimating — the traditional LDP and with it practices that caused the debt to balloon in the first place.

Beyond that, for all the scorn heaped upon Mr. Koizumi by Japan's progressives (and some rightists) for his "neo-liberal" revolution, as Steve Vogel and Aurelia George Mulgan have argued, it's possible to overstate the significance of Mr. Koizumi's reforms. I would argue that his reforms have had far more profound political consequences than economic consequences. By suggesting that another kind of LDP rule was possible, Mr. Koizumi permanently transformed the terms of debate within the LDP, leaving the party's various schools of thought to argue over whether to embrace his vision for party fully and leaving his successors to fix Japan's institutions and modernize the party while trying to preserve the party's rural base.

As such Sato dismisses the Jiji poll mentioned here that showed Mr. Koizumi to be the overwhelming top choice when people were asked which politician would make the best prime minister. The results might change somewhat depending on which part of the country was polled, but it is wishful thinking on the part of Sato to think that the Japanese people have tired of Mr. Koizumi and his theatrical politics. Whatever the frustrations of his premiership, he remains better loved than his successors and wannabe successors, perhaps because he pointed to a way out of Japan's many problems — and because his political style showed that he was willing to take risks to move his agenda forward.

2 comments:

MTC said...

Japan Observer -

The Mulgan book was published in 2003...making it not a great candidate for a comprehensive, forensic review of the Koizumi economic reform effort.

Japan Observer said...

MTC,

Point taken, but Mulgan's picture of the Koizumi revolution is still relevant in that it shows that the obstacles he faced meant that he wasn't going to get everything on his wish list, something that must be taken into account when looking at his legacy.