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After Abe

Japan's prime minister quits. What does he leave behind?

12:47 PM, Sep 14, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI was a tough act to follow. The former Japanese prime minister, who stepped down a year ago this month, swung into office in April 2001 like a wrecking ball, pledging to "destroy" his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) if it didn't accept free-market reforms and seeking to cripple the LDP faction system. With long silver locks and a zest for American pop culture, Koizumi cut a far more dashing figure than most Japanese leaders. In foreign affairs, he lived up to his self-billing as a "diehard pro-American," deploying naval vessels for the war in Afghanistan and later sending several hundred noncombat ground troops to aid the reconstruction of Iraq.

After a turbulent start, Koizumi proved a wildly successful maverick, boasting a charismatic flair that eclipsed his stumbles and unpopular decisions (such as the Iraq mission). In 2005, when his premiership stalled over the privatization of Japan's postal service--which doubles as a savings bank with about $3 trillion in assets--Koizumi boldly expelled anti-privatization LDP members from the party and called a snap ballot. He won a landslide victory, then won postal privatization, and left office as a political folk hero.

It was perhaps unfair that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would invariably be compared to his iconic predecessor. But when Abe took office last September, there were high hopes that it would be a smooth transfer. He inherited a strong approval rating, and kicked off his tenure with important trips to China and South Korea. Around the same time, Kim Jong Il detonated a nuclear bomb, which focused attention on Abe's muscular defense policy.

But his numbers soon began falling precipitously, thanks to a raft of follies and scandals. For starters: The agriculture minister committed suicide in May. His replacement, Norihiko Akagi, resigned a few months later. Then Akagi's replacement resigned after just one week on the job. (All three were suspected of malfeasance.) The defense minister, Fumio Kyuma, resigned in July after some imprudent remarks about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In late 2006, the head of Abe's Tax Commission resigned due to reports that he was stashing his mistress in a publicly funded apartment.

Abe also sought to bring back LDP members who were purged by Koizumi during the postal privatization spat, which raised questions about his leadership and reform instincts. Meanwhile, the government admitted mishandling tens of millions of pension records, which made Abe seem incompetent. Many Japanese felt he was too obsessed with amending the pacifist, MacArthur-era constitution, and had shown a tin ear for concerns over pensions, health care, wages, and inequality. His party took a drubbing in elections this past July, losing control of parliament's upper house for the first time since 1955.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which now runs the upper house, urged the prime minister to quit. On Wednesday, Abe announced his resignation, prompting a wave of speculation over his motives and successor. Just days earlier, he had vowed to resign if the Diet (parliament) did not extend the anti-terrorism law that has allowed Japanese naval vessels to support the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. But then, rather than fight for its extension, Abe abruptly stepped down.

To some foreign observers and domestic critics, he had epitomized the baleful resurgence of Japanese nationalism. These fears were overblown, but the prime minister did not help his case by denying that Japanese soldiers had forced women into sex slavery during World War II. (Abe later backtracked and vowed to support the 1993 Kono Statement, an apology for the abuse of the "comfort women" that was issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono but never ratified by the Diet.)

Abe, who turns 53 this month, shared Koizumi's vision of boosting the U.S. alliance and expanding Japan's international role. But he was less repentant about Japanese history and lacked Koizumi's Teflon charm. For that matter, constitutional reform simply does not animate the Japanese public. "People didn't really care about this issue," says Edward Lincoln, director of the Center for Japan-U.S. Business and Economic Studies at New York University's Stern School of Business. "It may be the case that people still don't really want to do it."