The prime minister is accused of dispatching “assassins” to take on the “rebels,” and he has been compared to a legendary 16th century samurai who burned a temple to the ground to kill his enemies within.
He has invoked the spirit of Galileo Galilei, declaring that the Italian astronomer who argued the Earth revolves around the sun faced “forces of resistance” similar to the old guard of Japanese politicians who now seek to block progress.
“I am even ready to be killed,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, presumably with hyperbole, when he called the Sept. 11 election, for which formal campaigning begins today.
Who knew the Japanese would get so worked up about reforming their post office?
Koizumi, the man splashing gobs of color onto the gray canvas of Japanese politics, is a headstrong political loner who has held the post of prime minister for four years and four months in a country where few survive a fraction of that time.
He is now running a bold campaign for reelection dominated by recruitment of high-profile outside candidates -- dubbed “assassins” by a titillated media -- to take on those members of his Liberal Democratic Party who dared to defy his plan to privatize Japan Post.
Koizumi has used the fuss surrounding these political newcomers to frame the election around this single issue: privatization of the state-owned mail carrier, which also serves as a savings bank.
Japan Post controls about $3 trillion in assets, and LDP officials have long dipped into its coffers to fund politically beneficial, if dubious, public works projects without Cabinet oversight. Privatization would cut the symbiotic relationship between LDP politicians and the post office’s 400,000 employees, many of whom form the organizational foundations of the party, especially in the rural areas that have been its bastion.
Koizumi has cast himself as the country’s reformer in chief, while trying to tar the opposition parties and the 37 lower house rebels in his own party who voted against his postal privatization legislation as “standpatters.” When the legislation was defeated last month, Koizumi dissolved parliament a year early, threw the rebels out of the LDP and vowed to quit immediately as party leader if he and his coalition partners were not returned with a majority.
Caught off balance and initially adrift at being stripped of the comfort of the LDP machine, four of the rebels said they would not seek reelection.
Most of the others will stand as independents, with a few regrouping into one of two new anti-Koizumi parties. But Koizumi has recruited fresh faces to his reformist cause, several of them talented and telegenic women in a country with a dearth of female politicians, to take on the old guard.
To the frustration of his opponents, the prime minister’s strategy appears to be working.
“It’s a good technique -- it keeps us from discussing what he has achieved or not achieved,” said Katsuya Okada, 52, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan that polls show to be trailing the LDP.
“That’s his skill. I can’t copy this.”
Okada is a former bureaucrat whose campaign is based on pension overhaul, the sinking national birthrate, the poor relations with China and Koizumi’s decision to send troops to Iraq. But none of those issues have been given much attention by a Japanese media obsessed by the clash of personalities at the heart of the party that has controlled Japanese politics for all but 30 months since 1948.
The drama surrounds not just whether Koizumi can get his party reelected without the expelled old guard. The broader question is whether his gamble to bring in high-profile political novices, breaking the LDP’s usual, tightly controlled access to office, signals a fundamental change in Japanese politics.
Koizumi has recruited such pro-reform candidates as Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, whose hostile takeover bid for a Japanese media company has made him an anti-establishment hero to many young Japanese. (Among other things, Horie gets under the skin of traditionalists by being seen only in T-shirts instead of a suit and tie.)
There also is intense media scrutiny of several of the prominent women Koizumi has recruited as candidates. They include a high-profile bank economist, a senior Finance Ministry bureaucrat who the Japanese media consistently remind voters is a former Miss Tokyo University, an ex-disarmament envoy and the popular host of a TV cooking show.
Labeled “Madonnas of reform” or “female ninjas,” they have caused a stir in a country where politics is almost exclusively a men’s club. Of the 477 members in Japan’s lower house when the election was called, just 33, or about 7%, were women.
“It’s a transition time in Japan; more women are working, and now we have to change the attitudes of Japanese men,” said Makiko Fujino, 55, one of the LDP’s new candidates, as she campaigned Monday in Nagoya.
Fujino arrived in politics already a national figure as a celebrity chef, and she told a lunchtime gathering of mostly women that cooking and politics were essentially the same thing: “It’s about doing things for other people.”
Some of the rebels have complained about the media fuss over the female candidates, noting the unfair advantage of having to face off against opponents in miniskirts.
But even some feminists and mainstream political observers are disturbed by what they see as a shallow ploy by Koizumi to distract voters from other issues.
“It is cynical,” said Noriko Hama, an economist and professor at Doshisha University School of Management.
“He is clearly exploiting this male-female issue in a media- savvy way that plays into his desire to be seen as a reformer but belittles the role of women,” she said.
But Hama acknowledged that fielding such prominent female candidates would have been “totally unimaginable a few years back.” Koizumi, she said, “sometimes manages to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
Fujino is an example of how Koizumi may be changing the course of Japanese politics. Fujino, who is married to an LDP member of the upper house, says she is only beginning to grapple with political issues. By her own admission, she is politically unsophisticated, more confident talking about pastries and putting on parties for children than about Japan’s relations with China.
But she says she is concerned with issues such as food safety and nutrition for children, two subjects that barely have made the radar in male-dominated Japanese politics.
“Japanese men don’t understand these issues, they don’t understand the issues of children,” Fujino said. “We need to become more Europeanized, more Americanized in our attitudes.
“But Koizumi is the conductor,” she said. “We the people are just the players.”