The Game is on This Side of the Street

A win for Junichiro Koizumi and Japan.

In the democratic state sound policy of strong leaders will duly right a body politic, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proved it by sacking uncooperative Liberal Democratic Party members in a special election this last September 11th. Koizumi's original 2001 platform included reformation of Japan's corpulent national postal service, the preeminent government-run agency for parcels, savings, insurance and state revenue known since 2003 as Japan Post. Calling for privatization of Japan Post was in 2001, and was still six weeks ago, an affront to the country's political class and despite Koizumi's popularity the prime minister was met with timeserver opposition outrance.

Preservationists in the minority vanguard Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party's old school have stood behind statist convictions, hailing Japan Post as a monument that one simply should not pull down. Great Britain introduced the penny post — investment without banking, beneficial in design for both the government and the humble. From its Meiji Restoration start, the Japanese postal savings colossus survived the early Twentieth Century, the entrance and annihilation of the militarists, the dark first postwar decade, the late-century bonanza and market doldrums that have followed since. Today, Junichiro Koizumi's target for privatization is 134 years old; the world's leading and last great postal savings institution; the caretaker for one quarter of Japanese individual assets; and Japan's largest employer. Does he stand by his pledge? Well, yes — as the prime minister sees it, Japan Post does indeed have an enormous piece of the country's economy and work force between its jaws, and wary of bureaucratic instinct, Mr. Koizumi is trying to prevent deglutition.

Speaking at the 2005 Forbes Global CEO Conference in early September, an advisor to the prime minister, Haruo Shimada, put in signally libertarian terms what the left-wing newspaper Asahi Shimbun admitted two years ago. Asahi: "If Japan Post goes private, the Finance Ministry will lose a massive funding source." Shimada: "[Japan Post is] the cancer of Japan...[a] communist kind of segment in the huge financial market." Asahi: "If Japan Post were a bank, however, it would fall far short of the 4 percent capital adequacy ratio required to operate domestically." Shimada: "[The current system is] a tremendous burden for the future of Japan." Koizumi versus City Hall.

Japan's characteristically sedentary politics were vividly described by former Washington Post Tokyo bureau chief William Chapman in his book Inventing Japan. "Prime Minister [Shigeru] Yoshida," Chapman wrote, "had set the stage [in the Forties and early Fifties] by dismissing the Diet members as monkeys playing in a zoo. In the years that followed, they were seen as irrelevant meddlers, men concerned only with their own survival and not with the serious business of the government." Politics was for a friend of Chapman's "the game across the street," an activity nearby but isolated from and of little interest to passerby. Power was centralized and familial, noted Chapman, who ended his sour commentary thusly: "[P]oliticians are satisfied with [a] lack of citizen involvement. They do not appear to think that what they do should be of any concern to the ordinary man."

Fifteen years after Chapman's damnation cynics must have chuckled. This past August, Koizumi's own LDP majority in the upper-chamber House of Councillors helped throttle a privatization bill from the lower-chamber House of Representatives.

That would have been the end of most. Koizumi responded by dissolving the House of Representatives and establishing the subsequent, breakneck campaign as a public referendum for government reform — "Are you in support of privatization of the postal services? Or are you opposed to it?" asked the prime minister in his dissolution press conference. Koizumi reminded the Japanese electorate of a 2001 promise to "Change the LDP. And if it will not change, I will bring it down." And — he did. Privatization opponents found themselves running against candidates handpicked by Koizumi and his allies, dubbed "assassins" by Japan's press — celebrities, entrepreneurs, models, loyalists all. The LDP gave succor to pro-reform DPJ members, whose leadership — watching September polls swing towards the nimble prime minister — vacillated on its once-lucid understanding of the word "reform."

The erstwhile DPJ leader suggested that voters would "make a smart decision," and he was literally correct. On September 11th Koizumi's risk won him 327 seats of 480 in the House of Representatives; a supermajority to override a House of Councillors veto and the political capital to make that check unnecessary. The prime minister can celebrate his gain towards postal privatization but with that policy victory comes a mandate for constitutional revision, a deepening alliance with Washington and increased participation in diplomatic and military assertion.

LDP heavy Shizuka Kamei, who publicly challenged Junichiro Koizumi at the beginning of the year, was out of the prime minister's good graces at the start the snap election and hung onto a Diet seat by running in an ad hoc party. His post-election statement was mostly hyperbole but his lamentation for the Liberal Democratic Party was, unintentionally, instructive. "The LDP," said Kamei, "which I once loved, has completely changed." And that the Liberal Democratic Party has returned to parliamentary domination of better days as the reformist, not the smug postwar inheritor, is an inspiring departure from Japanese tradition.

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