Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Changing of the guard in Japan

Japan has a new Prime Minister. Shinzo Abe was installed yesterday to replace long-term successful leader Jun’ichiro Koizumi who stepped down after five mostly successful years in the top job. The PM is likely to signal a shift in Japanese foreign policy as they look to step away from the shadow of decades of postwar guilt

Koizumi meanwhile can enjoy his retirement. Jun’ichiro Koizumi was a third generation politician and son and grandson of government ministers. His grandfather Matajiro was known as the "wild man" and "tattoo minister" because of a large tattoo of a red dragon on his back. His unsuccessful bid to privatise the post office was picked up by his grandson Koizumi. Koizumi was born in 1942 near Yokohama. He studied economics at Tokyo’s Keio University, second most prestigious private university in Japan. His father died in 1969 and Koizumi unsuccessfully ran for election in his place. He got a job as secretary to the future PM Takeo Fukuda before getting elected three years later. Fukuda became his mentor in the Liberal Democratic Party – the LDP. The LDP have ruled Japan almost uninterruptedly since its foundation in 1955. For the first twenty years of its existence it was propped up by millions of dollars pumped into it by the CIA in the effort to stop an effective left-wing opposition in the country.

Koizumi gradually climbed up the political ladder. His arranged marriage in 1978 was a major event. The wedding cake was in the shape of the Japanese Diet building the reception drew 2,500 people including now PM Fukuda. Clearly Koizumi was destined for great things. He gained his first vice-ministerial role in 1979 and becoming a full minister nine years later. The only fly in the ointment was his divorce which caused Koizumi to vow never to marry again. Koizumi kept his first two sons and he never saw the third son who was born after the divorce. In 1993, the LDP’s long cosy reign was brought to end due to endemic corruption. This was a major shock to the ‘born to rule’ mentality of the party’s leaders. In opposition, Koizumi set up a new faction of younger, more dynamic members and he unsuccessfully fought to be elected president of the party in 1995 and again in 1999. In the meantime the other parties could not find a stable coalition and the LDP was returned to power a mere two years after their removal. Koizumi finally won the top job in 2001.

He immediately set up a program of reform. He realised his grandfather’s dream and privatised the post office. The Japanese stock market recovered after the country’s banking crisis. Koizumi became more assertive in the foreign policy area too. H emphasised Japan’s claims over the Russian occupied Kuril Islands. He sent troops to Iraq, a token gesture, but a large one given the express anti-militarism of the Japanese constitution. But his most controversial and provocative move was his annual visit to the Yasukuni shrine. The Shinto shrine near Toyko is dedicated to Japan’s war dead. The shrine’s Book of Souls listed the names of over two million men and women who were killed in wartime. The list includes over a thousand convicted of war crimes. While the visits were condemned by South Korea and China, it was politically popular in Japan where they had a 69% approval rating in 2001. Koizumi was known as a maverick leader and he was obsessed by Elvis Presley with whom he shares a birthday (8 January). In 2001 he released a CD collection of his favourite Elvis songs which included his comments on each song. His brother is Senior Advisor of the Tokyo Elvis Fan Club. On his farewell trip to the States in June, the highlight was a visit to the less controversial shrine of Gracelands where he wore Elvis trademark sunglasses and sung a few bars of his songs.

His replacement Shinzo Abe is not quite as idiosyncratic but very similar in upbringing. He was born on the 21st of September 1945, which makes him by a matter of weeks Japan’s first post-war born Prime Minister. He graduated in political science at Seikei University near Tokyo in 1977. After a short stint working in private enterprise he began to work for the Japan’s long-term ruling LDP government. Like Koizumi, he is the third generation scion of a political family. His father Shintaro Abe was a possible candidate for Prime Minister until brought down by one Japan’s numerous financial scandals. After Shintaro died in 1991, his son was the obvious choice to take his seat in the Diet. Shinzo gradually worked his way to the top and became a Cabinet minister in the short-lived government of Yoshiro Mori in 2000. Mori was an unpopular PM with "the heart of a flea and the brain of a shark”. It wasn’t long before he lost his job to Koizumi. But Shinzo held his position under the new leader.

He came to public prominence in the 2002 negotiations with North Korea on Japanese citizens kidnapped by Kim Il-Jong’s regime. This referred to a strange episode between 1977 and 1983 when North Korea abducted up to 80 Japanese citizens. It is likely they were taken to teach the Japanese language and culture at North Korean spy schools. Shinzo struck a hard bargaining position with the Koreans which went down well at home. In October last year he was appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary of the fifth Koizumi administration which left him the heir apparent to succeed his boss. Yesterday the Diet elected him PM with a vote of 339-136 in his favour. At 52 Shinzo is the youngest Japanese leader since before Pearl Harbour.

Shinzo is a political conservative with even more hardline views on Japanese wartime activities than Koizumi. He published an instant bestseller in Japan “Towards a Beautiful Nation” where he repudiated the post war Tokyo Tribunal which charged many Japanese leaders with war crimes. He was also accused of censoring a tribunal on the military “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex for in military brothels during the war. He also opposes laws to allow women ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Despite his hawkish credentials, Shinzo has pledged to repair tattered relations with Asian neighbours. Relationships with China and South Korea have been frosty since Koizumi visited the war memorial. Although Shinzo is also in favour of such visits, his appointment has been cautiously welcomed by China and South Korea. Shinzo also has no ambitions to change the nature of the alliance with the US and told the press that alliance “forms the foundation of our foreign and security policy." However we can expect to see a more militarist stance from Japan as he attempts to change the pacifist constitution which has been in place since the end of World War II.

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