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Sunrise in Tokyo

What Prime Minister Koizumi's big win means for Japan and the United States.

12:00 AM, Sep 23, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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"EVEN MONKEYS FALL FROM TREES," says an old Japanese proverb. Opponents of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's intrepid prime minister, have been predicting his fall for some time now. Known for his high-stakes gambles--on, among other things, deploying troops to Iraq and revamping the Japanese postal service--Koizumi's been fairly lucky since taking office in April 2001. His critics have long reckoned that eventually his luck would run out. But, alas, the monkey always seems to find a new branch to grab hold of and steady his balance.

Koizumi fashions himself a "Lionheart," and after his smashing triumph in lower-house polls earlier this month, that appellation seems fitting. How dramatic was the premier's victory? "His magic was so successful that it's a little scary," Tokyo investment banker Hiroaki Toya told the BBC.

Prior to the September 11th vote, few expected Koizumi's Liberal Democratic party (LDP) to win such a landslide. Indeed, many Japanese commentators felt the election would prove his undoing. Koizumi called the snap ballot on August 8th, after the upper house of the Diet (parliament) rejected his scheme to privatize Japan Post. That set the stage for Japan's most gripping election in years: the best chance yet for the opposition Democratic party of Japan (DPJ) to break the LDP's nearly contiguous five-decade grip on power.

In the event, those sounding Koizumi's death knell were wrong again. The DPJ came off as bantams not quite ready for primetime. Koizumi, meanwhile, found his boldness rewarded in spades. Minus the 37 LDP rebels purged for their heresy on the postal bill, the ruling party was defending some 212 seats in the 480-seat lower house. With its election gains, the LDP now controls 296 seats, while its coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, holds 31, giving Koizumi the two-thirds majority needed to override upper-house dissent. The DPJ's allotment fell from 175 lower-house seats to just 113.

It's tempting to read the LDP landslide--Japan's biggest since 1986--as a validation of Koizumi's market-friendly agenda. But the reality is a bit murkier. For one thing, the DPJ offered a platter of reforms and spending cuts even more drastic, in some cases, than Koizumi's. And few Japanese fully understand the esoteric dynamics of post-office privatization. Though Koizumi tried to make the ballot a referendum on overhauling Japan Post (the world's largest financial institution), his on-message campaigning and personal pizzazz were likely his greatest assets.

Indeed, while the election results were ostensibly a mandate for radical change, they were probably more of an endorsement of Koizumi-style populism. Most Japanese tend to be temperamentally conservative and wary of any rapid shift toward American-style capitalism. But they also seem to share their prime minister's taste for maverick politics. In an environment long dominated by public-sector special interests and shady backroom dealing, Koizumi plays the iconoclast: a dashing reformer who paints in bold strokes and continually defies the conventional wisdom.

This wasn't the first time he had risked his premiership on a dicey policy. In late 2003, Koizumi made history by dispatching several hundred non-combat troops from the Self-Defense Forces to help rebuild Iraq. Lest he contravene Japan's famously pacifist constitution, Koizumi pushed through a special law authorizing the mission. It was an unprecedented step for a postwar Japanese government: sending grounds troops abroad to a nation still mired in bloody conflict, and without the comfort of international sanction.

Koizumi, a self-proclaimed "diehard pro-American" leader, cast the mission as a reasonable function of the U.S.-Japan alliance. It fit snugly within the broader thrust of his foreign policy. Along with his chum George W. Bush, Koizumi has presided over a flourishing of relations between Washington and Tokyo, marked not only by Japan's role in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but also by increased cooperation on ballistic missile defense, a shared firmness on North Korea, joint coordination of tsunami relief last winter, a mutual statement on defending Taiwan, and America's support for a permanent Japanese seat on the U.N. Security Council. (In October 2004, Koizumi went so far as to publicly favor Bush's reelection.)

Small wonder the White House was pulling for Koizumi. For much of the past two years, Koizumi's DPJ critics have squealed about Iraq and questioned his buddy-buddy rapport with President Bush. In its recent election manifesto, the DPJ pledged to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq by Christmas. Meanwhile, party leader Katsuya Okada signaled his opposition to America's Futenma Air Base being stationed in Okinawa.