Koizumi's Candid, Quirky Years of E-Mail Exchange

Times Staff Writer

"Junichiro Koizumi here." For five years, that simple salutation has greeted subscribers to the "Koizumi Cabinet E-Mail Magazine," an experiment in digital politics that saw the prime minister of Japan knocking on 1.6 million inboxes every Thursday morning.

Scrawled by Koizumi himself, and typed into a computer by his staff, the e-mails let everyone know what he'd been up to and what was on his mind. They also offered plenty of unsolicited advice on how people might improve their lives.

The e-mails stop this week.

Koizumi steps down as prime minister Sept. 26, his popularity still high and his preferred successor, Shinzo Abe, certain to succeed him. But Koizumi's musings and obsessions over the span of 249 messages are perhaps the best example of his folksy touch and theatrical impulses that delivered such a shock to Japan's opaque political culture.

His e-mails read like a man thinking aloud. Koizumi expressed surprise at the staggeringly high prices of Japanese apples sold in Shanghai and explained how French President Jacques Chirac gave him a great idea on one of his major preoccupations: boosting tourism to Japan.

He worried about the victims of floods and earthquakes, and revealed former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's advice on how to throw out ceremonial first pitches. Aim high, Giuliani said.

Part blogger, occasional agony aunt and always able to turn a casual observation into a political point, Koizumi began sending the e-mails two months into his first term in 2001 and kept it up every week, holidays excepted. An English version of them became available in March 2004.

He also encouraged subscribers to write back, and they did: 500 to 1,000 e-mail replies a week, according to his office, creating what may be a unique electronic conversation between a leader and a nation.

It was not a completely new idea. Just about every head of government has a website that lauds the leader's accomplishments and lists the ribbons cut, laws passed and dignitaries greeted. They almost universally offer no insight into what's going on at the center of government.

Koizumi's newsletters were clearly self-serving as well. There was plenty of policy talk and there were links to the same kind of spin you'll find on the White House or 10 Downing Street sites. Each e-mail was also titled "Lion Heart," a reference, readers were told, to "the prime minister's lion-like hairstyle and his unbending determination to advance structural reform."

Yet there was a candor (perhaps calculated) that made these weekly messages less predictable and more compelling.

Koizumi wrote about the Japanese poets who inspired him. About what bugged him (usually "pessimistic" people). There were tips on how to stay cool in the summer: "In the old days, people used to sprinkle water on the ground in the summertime," he informed them. "I never cease to be amazed by the wisdom of people of the past."

And he mentioned good movies he'd recently seen, urging readers to get out and see them too. He loved "Seabiscuit" for its inspirational message. It was just like the Japanese horse Haru-urara, who kept racing despite an 0-for-105 losing streak.

"Hara-urara's attitude of not giving up despite being beaten race after race is one that is clearly an inspiration for us all," he wrote.

His e-mails were filled with these bromides for self-improvement.

Make sure you eat breakfast. Rest. (The Japanese could cut their stress levels, he was sure, if they could just sleep longer.) And exercise more.

Take this excerpt from an issue where he responded to readers' questions about how he spent his leisure time:

"I am sure you remember primary school days when, all sleepy-eyed, you had to get up early in the morning during summer vacation to attend those radio physical exercise sessions and get your card stamped for each session you attend. I guess it has just grown to be part of my routine. So I do a little exercise every day using my own special stretching method.

"In the beginning you may find it difficult to reach your toes without bending your knees, but eventually you will be able to do it."

At times Koizumi dwelt on peripheral matters while skipping over issues at the heart of Japanese politics.

Last October 13, for example, Koizumi wrote that he had noticed increasing signs of autumn's approach: "I was taking my usual walk from my official residence to my office when I spotted mushrooms among the shrubbery in front of my residence," he wrote. "Looking closer, I found an assortment of mushrooms scattered about, whose varieties ranged from large-capped mushrooms to small mushrooms that were nearly hidden by the shadows of the weeds.

"I am eager to look them up to learn whether they are edible."

He made no mention that within three days he would be making another pilgrimage to Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are among those honored. Every visit provokes a stormy backlash from China and stains Japan's international reputation.

The next week he proudly reported that replies poured in with advice on what mushrooms could and could not be eaten.

Yet for all their shortcomings, the e-mails show what drove Koizumi, and highlight what he believes ails 21st century Japan. In his notes he is constantly encouraging the Japanese to lift their heads and see the rest of the world, exhorting them to overcome their resistance to change.

Keep the best of Japanese traditions, he said. But meld them with worthy ideas and practices from abroad.

The story about the high demand for Japanese apples in Shanghai, for example, turned into a parable about the export opportunities for farmers if agricultural trade barriers come down.

He told the Japanese they had nothing to fear from foreign investment, and challenged long-held perceptions about foreigners, such as the myth that they won't eat raw fish.

I have been to Santiago, Chile, he told them. They have sushi restaurants there.

He was never a scold and seldom defensive, except when explaining, finally, why he continued to go to Yasukuni.

Those asking him to stop did so only because China was opposed to the visits, he said. "Or in other words, it is better not to do things that China does not like."

He leaves having both entertained and infuriated the Japanese. But for those who sifted through his online chatter, there was the reward of a little extra insight into the strange and giddy nature of Junichiro Koizumi.


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