A Little Steadiness at the Top
Columnist Tom Plate

A Little Steadiness at the Top

Japanís national elections may prove good for the world.

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

This column originally appeared in

LOS ANGELES -- Junichiro Koizumi will continue as prime minister of Japan after Sundayís (Nov. 9) national elections, if opinion polls have it right. In fact, that would be the best outcome for Japan, its neighbors and the rest of the world, especially since the alternative candidates range from the unnerving to the ineffectual.

One of the worldís most arrestingly coiffured bachelors who remains, after two years in office, quite popular among Japanís 100-million-or-so voters, women in particular -- Koizumi may not be the second coming of Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japanís ranking elder statesman and the last prime minister America was bowled over by.

But he is the best Japan has -- and offers his country a better prospect than did the many prime ministers who during the í90s door-revolved in and out of office, to the dizzied dismay of Japanís admirers.

This important country could well use a little steadiness at the top. For Japanís neighbors, Koizumi is the least worrisome of those who are most electable.

Take Tokyoís governor, Shintaro Ishihara, whoís not in the running this round but would be the odds-on favorite should Koizumi falter. This self-styled lightning rod is a poster boy for Asians who fear a remilitarized Japan. In a recent interview with international journalist Nathan Gardels, editor of the Global Viewpoints syndicated service, Ishihara said he would accelerate construction of missile defense (which would trigger a costly and dangerous regional arms race) and slap sanctions on North Korea (even as the six-party negotiations show promise). Also, he asserted that the Chinese donít really care if North Korea has nuclear weapons (but the last thing China wants is for Japan to go nuclear, which it well might if North Korea does) and brayed arrogantly that the United States doesnít understand China (well, he may be on to something here, but for the wrong reasons).

If Japanís neighbors donít want Ishihara in power, they could help Koizumi by trying to understand him better. Take his controversial visits to war shrines. True, there among the celebrated buried are war criminals, but they are vastly outnumbered by the graves of Japanese patriots who simply got caught up in a bad war. Koizumi makes these treks for the same reason that Chinese leaders shake clenched fists at any Taiwan politician threatening independence: to satiate domestic constituencies.

For the United States, Koizumi-san is emerging as a young Nakasone. Prime minister when Reagan was president, Nakasone was a strong leader who remained in office for more than a flicker, from 1982 through 1987. Five years is about what Koizumi will probably have.

For Bush in particular, Koizumi is a godsend. He was one of the first leaders to endorse the edgy Iraq invasion, one of the few to offer Bush significant help (in both yen and young soldiers) and the first in memory to offer something more than a moribund diplomacy.

By traveling to North Korea a year ago -- a risky and startling move -- Koizumi helped to re-energize regional diplomacy and wake up Chinaís leaders to the realization that the volatile North Korean issue required their involvement -- or they would suffer serious implications. In a recent interview with the globe-trotting Gardels, the savvy Nakasone, now 85, said flatly that the North Koreans will disarm within two years (and thatís probably right).

Koizumi also represents the possibility -- though not the certainty -- that Japan will reform its economy. That means dicing and splicing the vested interest groups that comprise the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), of which he is leader. Japan will miss the free-trade ocean liner if its powerful agricultural lobbies sink every proposed international agreement requiring agricultural trade-offs.

Ironically, his reelection offers some hope in that stalemate. Reform cannot come from without as long as the LDP retains enough seats in the Diet to fend it off. That means the LDP must be reformed from within, and the insider who can do it is Koizumi.

Thereís another reason Koizumiís reinstallation is a positive. Many young people like him -- his irreverence, his shooting from the lip, his youthful jaunt, his devil-may-care attitude. Japanís leading bachelor has his faults (a little too glib and perhaps not equal to Japanís overwhelming economic problems) -- though boring, like his recent prime minister predecessors, is not one of them.

And without Koizumi, Japan would sink into emotional, if not economic, depression.