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The Koizumi Connection: What Has Five Years of Funny Hair Meant for the Asia-Pacific? [ 2006.09.22 ]

OK, so everybody knows him as that flamboyant looking Japanese guy who is always in the news for visiting war shrines, smiling in front of cameras with George W. Bush, and singing along to the odd Elvis Presley tune, but underneath all that hair and behind those expensive suits lies a man who for half a decade has been more than a little influential towards the future of the Asia-Pacific. As leader of Japan he has been responsible for shaping how that nation perceives the world and conversely, how the world has viewed Japan over these last five years. You could say he has been somewhat unlucky in that soon after he took over the reigns the world was thrust into an unprecedented age of terrorism. Perhaps Koizumi already had half a mind to expand Japan’s presence in the international arena anyway but his hand was certainly forced by events post-september 11, and for all the criticism that can be thrown his way it cant have been easy to lead the world’s second largest economy through such a troubled international era. ‘Bush-bashers’ are quick to pin Koizumi’s face up on the dartboard next to his presidential friend as by association they must be working towards the same agenda of a ‘New World Order’, but if world leaders can be dismissed for sharing ideological values than no governments could function anywhere, or at any stage of history. The fact that the American and Japanese leaders formed a close personal friendship (or at least attempted to portray one through the media) should be of minor significance to the machinations of international wheeling and dealing. For even if the two gentlemen cared little for each other in terms of personal feelings they would have doubtless cooperated over world issues regardless. So it is somewhat unfair to paint both leaders with the same brush, as friends they may be, but first and foremost they are the ultimate public servants of their respective nations, and their countries come first to any trivial niceties. So forgetting about the fact he was Bush’s buddy, how best is it to judge the performance of Mr. Koizumi? What has he done to or for the image of Japan, could he have done better, and in what state has he left his nation for future movers and shakers to kick on and work with down the line?

When the world was shocked by the events of September the 11th 2001 American foreign policy was changed forever. No longer it seemed could mass violence be constrained to a ‘legitimate’ battlefield. Now wars could be fought any time, anywhere, and without notice. With perhaps a somewhat understandable level of clouded judgement the US sought to lash out and reprimand states that it deemed somehow responsible, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. In order to build a ground swell of international support Washington had to make the call of “you’re either for us or against us” and because of the historical links not to mention the present day ties, Japan more or less had to accept the new wave of American foreign policy. So it seems Koizumi’s first major challenge was to swing the Japanese public around to his belief that whole heartedly supporting the US politically over these wars was essential for Japan’s standing. Japan wasn’t alone in this way of thinking in the Asia-Pacific though, as South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia all gave similar support. This did leave some glaring absentees, though non-more so than China and Indonesia, the worlds most populated Muslim nation. So in an Asia-Pacific of split opinions Koizumi showed early on he was in tune with America and its ideals, but of course there was one huge stumbling block. Ironically brought about by the America of the past, Japan’s constitution forbids the nation from raising arms and getting involved in a military engagement. This aging piece of legislation would have no doubt inevitably weakened and crumbled at some future date but it is no coincidence that the Prime Minister sought about the expansion of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) just one month after the fateful events in New York. Needing to keep his citizens on his side whilst simultaneously pandering to American insistence Koizumi had to tiptoe carefully around the Diet as he sought approval for his new law entitled Humanitarian Relief and Iraqi Reconstruction Special Measures. Despite some genuinely vocal opposition the bill was enacted paving the way for SDF troops to be sent to Iraq in 2004, but more significantly it was the first real crack in the longstanding constitutional convention of non-military engagement. So perhaps Koizumi’s greatest legacy will be this massive decision to change history and allow Japanese armed forces to operate in a capacity other than directly defending their homeland.

In the eyes of the west, or perhaps more specifically the Anglo-triumvirate of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia this increase in Japanese military engagement is viewed as an altogether positive thing. A move that could relieve the burden on these governments and their own armed forces who seem to be at the forefront of most if not all military junctures in the name of ‘world peace’. Alternately in the eyes of the east this same development has been scrutinised with the utmost suspicion as to the ultimate objective of Japan and its military reawakening. If you look at history from around the 17th century onwards (when the theory of ‘nation states’ was first being promoted) then the only genuine aggressor in East Asia has been Japan. Japan is really the only nation that has overtly attempted to take over the sovereignty of its neighbours and for all those that have suffered it is China, and the two Koreas that take the greatest umbrage. Whilst America and indeed Australia may have been at war with Japan, they never once felt the shame and cruel repression of colonial dominance that Japan held over its near neighbours. It is no secret that Japan was a harsh governor of its newly acquired territories, and no amount of inaccurate high school textbook publishing can hide the damage it did to other peoples, but unlike in Europe where world war two grievances have long been cared for, the pain in Asia has seemingly never healed. And herein lies Koizumi’s greatest fault as a leader, an unabashed sense of cultural pride steeped in nationalist undertones at the expense of stabilising relations with genuine regional powers. Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine under the guise of Prime Minister of Japan is the symbolic equivalent of the German Chancellor going to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and praying for the souls of German troops who ran the camp but ultimately lost their lives in doing so. It really is that big a deal but many westerners don’t appear to appreciate the significance of Yasukuni to China and the Korean Peninsula. Imagine if Yasukuni was a place commemorating the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Would Koizumi the man visit so openly then? If he has a genuine spiritual desire to pray at such a place he has the power to do so quietly, with self-imposed media bans if necessary, or even in secret. He did not have to be so overt and indeed almost proud of the fact. It is almost as if the attention these visits caused was welcomed by the Prime Minister as a not so subtle message to others saying, “we have been powerful before, and we are powerful now, so please maintain respect”. Whilst undoubtedly many Japanese citizens were content to see their leader unswayed by foreign opinion, unfortunately he actually caused loss of respect when he should have been so desperately trying to seek the approval of near neighbours and building consensus towards strong friendships. Wether Koizumi was merely naïve or indeed extremely arrogant is up for debate, however these antagonistic visits will be forever attached to his name when the history books look back at his leadership.

The thing about Koizumi is that he was seemingly so popular domestically that he could do just about what ever he felt necessary on the international stage in order to enhance Japan’s reputation as a world player. It is easy to forget that during the east-Asian economic crisis of the late nineties Japan’s economy took a hit, its just compared to developing nations it was better equipped to ride the bump. Never the less Koizumi really helped to get the national finances back on track through some strong reforms on the domestic scene. By calling the Diet’s bluff over the postal privatisation bills and announcing a snap election, which he easily won, he could really afford to bask in his domestic popularity. In fact if it wasn’t for his own party’s rule that he is no longer allowed to hold the position he could probably be in power for years to come, and it is somewhat sad to see a strong and charismatic Japanese leader, the likes of which has never held the office before, be forced to retire when he is at the top of his game. That said it is going to be an extremely hard act to follow and in true Koizumi style he had refused to personally name a successor, a traditional parting manoeuvre by those who were chief minister before him. In light of recent party elections the man to succeed Koizumi is Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a man who, at least on the surface, looks much more akin to Japanese leaders of the past rather than his immediate predecessor. Mr. Abe has certainly placed himself on one of the hottest seats in international leadership since all of Koizumi’s efforts have their future in his hands. Undoubtedly the thorniest issue yet to be resolved centres around the Self-Defence Forces with the agency due to be bumped up to full ministry status via a bill to be re-introduced in the near future. Should this bill succeed then Prime Minister Abe can feel like he has been passed a hot potato by his former chief who may have got the ball rolling on military reinstatement but will not be around to deal with any fallout either domestically or from within the region.

Japan sits at a crossroads that it may not like but will certainly have to deal with. Seen to have built its riches on the back of imperialism it sits uncomfortably with its near neighbours and yet is loved as a regional friend by those in the west who share similar values regarding capitalism and democratic governance. Does Japan really want to continue receiving animosity from its mainland counterparts or does it wish to finally put to the bed the ill feelings of last century? Does it really want to head down the treacherous path of full military activation or does it enjoy its status quo of strong defence and nothing more? At this point in world history the nation is being pulled strongly in one particular direction but with the blossoming of China perhaps the island nation sees a more promising future the other way. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi didn’t think so, and when the cameras were rolling and the flash bulbs were lighting up the foyers and red carpets of international politics he made it abundantly clear that Japan’s future lay with Americanisation under the guise of globalisation and anti-terrorism. At least the new guy has a sensible hairstyle!

By Bernard Laidlaw.


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