TOKYO—During five dynamic years in office, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi revived Japan's economy, nurtured a new self-assurance in his countrymen and cemented uncommonly good relations with the United States.
Now that he's about to leave his job, commentators are casting him as one of the most influential leaders in Japan's postwar history.
With a take-no-prisoners political style and a penchant for sunglasses, long hair, direct language and Elvis, "cool Koizumi" has shaken the pillars of politics in Japan.
Will his nation ever be the same?
On Wednesday, the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will pick Koizumi's successor as party leader, who will then become prime minister on Sept. 26. Koizumi, 64, will head off to retirement. He's changed Japan in ways that could be long lasting, but Shinzo Abe, the likely new prime minister, will face pressures to ease off some of the reforms.
Koizumi's biggest achievement "is that he instilled confidence in the Japanese nation," said Jesper Koll, chief economist at Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. "Japan is back, and people here again think, `We deserve to be the second most important economy in the world.'"
When Koizumi came to office in 2001, Koll said, "Japan was desperate. The banks were bankrupt. ... You had an economy that was on the brink of depression."
Five and a half years hence, the economy purrs, major corporations once again build factories, land prices edge upward, and Japan contemplates its resurgent role as the U.S. deputy sheriff in East Asia, where China's power is rising and North Korea is going nuclear.
Koizumi's departure will be felt in Washington. The Japanese leader bucked his nation's decades-old pacifist tradition and stretched long-unused military muscle by deploying troops to Iraq in 2004. Despite public opposition, the troops stayed until July of this year, offering symbolic support that the White House hugely valued.
Koizumi shared an unusually strong bond with President Bush, who took him in late June on a personal tour of Graceland, the Memphis home of Elvis Presley, an idol of Koizumi.
"His personal relationship with President Bush ... has been fundamental in bringing the U.S.-Japan alliance to its high-water mark," said Brad Glosserman of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Much of what made Koizumi unique, though, involved his penchant for smashing plates in domestic politics. Unlike his predecessors in the LDP, Koizumi wasn't beholden to a system of opaque negotiations among faction leaders, which has marked postwar Japanese politics.
After decades of colorless politicians, Japanese voters ate it up. Koizumi's command of the sound bite and direct style of speaking endeared him to the masses.
"Koizumi didn't care much about the status quo and personal relationships," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute in Tokyo.
He largely shunned party bosses for his Cabinet and expanded the functions of his job, adopting an unusual presidential style of governance. For chief economic minister, he brought in an outsider, Heizo Takenaka, who helped slash public works projects.
That was particularly evident last year when Koizumi called snap national elections to thwart renegades in his own party blocking privatization of the $3 trillion postal system. Analysts coined the term "political theater" to describe how Koizumi lured outsiders to challenge and drum out of office the 38 LDP legislators who defied him.
It was a remarkable triumph. His allies won a landslide victory in September 2005, which revived the fortunes of the LDP. Analysts said a new political style had emerged.
"Japanese are more comfortable with this kind of maverick or individualistic politician," Watanabe said.
Indeed, Koizumi has the support of an astonishing 64 percent of Japanese, according to a nationwide poll published Friday by the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.
Not all was rosy. Relations with China and South Korea, two of Japan's most important trading partners, are tenser than ever. To fulfill a campaign promise, Koizumi has gone every year to worship at Yasukuni, the shrine where the nation's 2.5 million war dead are honored, including more than a dozen convicted Class-A war criminals. The visits have enraged Beijing and Seoul.
Ultra-nationalism is on the rise, and it's not just guys in sound trucks blaring patriotic slogans. Some academics report anonymous threats, and a legislator saw his home burned to the ground on Aug. 15 after he criticized Koizumi for visiting Yasukuni. A lesser candidate as party chief, Sadakazu Tanigaki, said the atmosphere is "not dissimilar to the 1930s," when the country was racked by "narrow-minded nationalism."
Moreover, Koizumi's pro-market economics weakened a sense of an egalitarian state, widening the gap between rich and poor. The rural economy remains vulnerable, and many elderly are trapped in poverty from deep cuts in welfare assistance.
Even so, it's in the economic sphere that Koizumi achieved what few expected, given Japan's dire situation when he took office. Back then, Japan was sputtering at an anemic 0.4 percent growth rate per year, and Japan Inc. appeared mired in deflation.
When Koizumi slashed spending, private businesses started tackling structural problems. Slowly, reforms took effect. By 2004, Japan chalked up 2.3 percent growth, and last year it sped up to 2.8 percent growth. Similar growth is expected this year.
Ironically, Japan's newly steady economic course may slow momentum on reform, and some experts say the Koizumi era could be an intermission in politics-as-usual.
Abe, the Koizumi Cabinet chief who's his likely successor, is far less charismatic than Koizumi, and faces challenging Upper House elections next year. Abe will struggle to hang on to power and is likely to bring back the LDP rebels Koizumi ousted from the party and revive pork barrel spending.
In some sectors, fatigue with painful cost cutting has set in.
"The golden age of pro-market reforms is over," predicted Koll, the Merrill Lynch economist.
Abe, who at 51 is a generation younger than Koizumi, faces other challenges. In fundamental ways, Koizumi postponed key issues, including whether Japan will alter its pacifist constitution to turn the self-defense forces into a normal army and modernizing a longstanding U.S.-Japanese security alliance to reflect Japan's stronger role.
"We haven't seen any explanation to the Japanese people and to the world about ... where Japan is going," Glosserman said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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