Why Koizumi’s ‘it’s now or never’ shtick fell flat



William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades”.

The memory of Junichiro Koizumi that resonates the most all these years later: the Elvis Summit.

In July 2006, the world leader with one of the best manes of all time, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, joined US President George W. Bush at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. There, along with Elvis Presley’s widow Priscilla and bewildered members of the world media, Koizumi donned The King sunglasses, played aerial guitar, and sang the lines of “Love Me Tender” and “Fools Rush In” in the infamous Jungle Room.

Now, the 20th anniversary of the start of arguably the most important Japanese prime minister in decades, Koizumi’s antics in Tokyo circles from 2001 to 2006 look no less entertaining – or consistent.

Shinzo Abe had been around longer – almost eight years – but posterity will give Koizumi’s tenure much more weight. Abe’s mentor has done more to upend the frozen political dynamics in Tokyo and put real structural reform on the books. He was the rare populist to have used his charisma to make things better.

Junichiro Koizumi does his Elvis Presley impersonation for Priscilla, second from left, and George W. Bush, right, in the Jungle Room of the late singer’s house in Memphis in June 2006. © Reuters

Abe spoke of a great game of breaking down bureaucratic walls, painful deregulation and shattering vested interests. The same goes for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga now. But maverick Koizumi wrote the book that Abe and Suga slept in.

Concrete example: the privatization of the gigantic Japan Post. For years, this state giant with some 400,000 employees and 25,000 branches embodied the bloat and graft that led to the bad debt crisis in Japan in the 1990s and undermined reform efforts.

The centerpiece of Japan Post was the world’s largest savings institution with billions of dollars in assets. The Postal Savings Bank was where politicians, using various funding systems, went to fund pet projects in the home districts.

In addition to removing politicians’ hands from their corrupt piggy banks, Koizumi urged banks to appropriate the scale of their bad loans from the 1990s and write them down. He took the “State of Construction”, planning 10% cuts in public works spending and public debt. He attacked the powerful agricultural lobby, the social security bureaucracy, the medical establishment and others, in Koizumi’s words, “sacred cows.”

It wasn’t just what Koizumi had attempted, but how. He challenged the partisan formula of seeking consensus behind the scenes by appealing directly to the people. He used his immense popularity, his Richard Gere-style beauty and the shameful “Lionheart” newsletter of factional dueling in parliament to support reform.

I don’t wanna, well, worship this man. The Koizumi era is its own uplifting tale of what might have been. His support for Bush’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq – even while navigating the pacifist constitution to send troops – has not aged well.

Ditto for Koizumi’s visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead are interned with war criminals. It spoiled relations with China and South Korea. And although Koizumi is now an anti-nuclear activist – after the Fukushima crisis – he too has championed “reactor economics”.

Yet perhaps Koizumi’s biggest mistake is his choice of successors: Abe, who during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 put aside economic reforms in favor of national security. It lasted for a year, setting up a cycle of leaders who come and go in an instant. Posterity is unlikely to spend much time on the governments of Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan, Yoshihiko Noda, Abe 2.0, and even today’s Suga administration.

One of the reasons it’s worth retracing Koizumi’s footsteps is because he centralized power in the prime minister’s office, laying the groundwork for a strong reformer to organize big changes. Instead, we can draw direct lines between that time and the political paralysis of today.

Koizumi, of course, bequeathed us both incarnations of Abe. It was the ally of Koizumi Toshihiro Nikai, the No. 2 leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, who helped Suga to rise to the top post. When Suga took over from Abe last September, political fools thought they sensed a big dose of Koizumi in his political goals. Suga, after all, served as Koizumi’s senior vice minister for internal affairs and communications. So far, however, Suga has read more in Abe’s playbook: All Carrots and No Sticks.

Abe returned to office in 2012 with bold speeches on easing labor markets, cutting red tape, spurring a startup boom and empowering women. However, it mainly relied on aggressive central bank easing and an old-fashioned spillover economy. Abe believed that hosting a spectacular Olympic Games alone would propel Tokyo into the future. As a result, Suga is the eighth government since Koizumi’s struggle to eradicate deflation.

All of this makes for an infuriating mental experience. What if Abe 1.0 had accelerated Koizumi’s reforms 15 years ago, instead of throwing them in the desk drawer? Japan could put more tech unicorns on the shelf. It might not follow Angola and Sri Lanka when it comes to gender equality. It could be the alternative seat as China strangles Hong Kong.

If Koizumi’s followers had relied less on a weaker yen, Japan Inc. could have done more to raise its competitive game, much like Germany did. Had they clashed with bureaucrats opposed to Tokyo’s change, Japan might not be bottom of the class among developed countries on COVID-19 vaccinations.

Once again, Koizumi, now 79, has had his fair share of missteps and missed opportunities. Yet he showed the LDP the power to focus on one or two comprehensive reforms to inspire a sense that big change is doable. Rather than awakening the animal spirit of Japan, the eight governments since Koizumi have tried to push the genie into the proverbial bottle.

In 2001, Koizumi released an album: “Junichiro Koizumi Presents: My Favorite Elvis Songs”. While it contains all of the usual suspicious Elvis classics, Koizumi joked at the time that we should pay special attention to why he included “It’s now or never”. If only the rulers parade since then had too.


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