Japan's Destroyer

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What Koizumi needs to do is win himself some allies in parliament—from among younger LDP legislators, perhaps, or even from the opposition. He was smart to sign up the young, hard-charging Nobuteru Ishihara to head up administrative reform in his Cabinet, and there are dozens of other younger pols, inside and out of the LDP, that he would be wise to court. But his natural aloofness makes it hard for him to reach out. And the few friends he has in politics are more likely to get him into trouble than out of it. Koizumi is close to right-wingers like Shintaro Ishihara, the Tokyo governor and Yasuhiro Nakasone, a former Prime Minister, and it was apparently on their advice that he made his first political gaffe: on Aug. 13, he paid his respects at Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine where Japan's soldiers, including indicted war criminals, are honored. The right-wingers supported him as pacifists and even mainstream politicians objected. The gesture infuriated Japan's neighbors, notably China and South Korea, who viewed the Prime Ministerial visit to the shrine as condoning Japan's wartime aggression. Koizumi's efforts to get back in Beijing and Seoul's good graces have thus far been snubbed.

His enemies at home let that misstep pass: his approval ratings are still too high for them to try anything drastic. But popularity is only a temporary shield. The voters who were so impressed by Koizumi's campaign candor might well feel differently if they have to endure many more weeks like the last one. And once his ratings fall—below 40% would start to make him squirm, according to analyst Toshikawa—it will be open season on Koizumi.

If he needs a cautionary tale about the impermanence of popularity, Koizumi need only call on former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. In 1993, Hosokawa was a proto-Koizumi: a young, telegenic maverick, who promised to mend Japan's then newly burst bubble economy and reform old-style politics. And yes, he too had a youthful, blow-dried haircut. Hosokawa bolted from the LDP, cobbled together a coalition and became Prime Minister with Koizumi-like approval ratings. True to his word, he opened the protected rice market and introduced campaign-finance reform. But a minor scandal and an unwieldy coalition deflated Hosokawa. Eight months later, he resigned.

Today, Hosokawa spends most of his time making clay pots in his studio in Atami, a beachside city 100 km south of Tokyo. "I tried to break the system from the outside," he said recently in an interview at his home. "Koizumi is trying to do it from the inside." Now 63, the former Prime Minister concedes he bit off more than he could chew. "I look back and realize how strong this system is, how very deeply rooted in Japanese culture it is," he says. But he betrays no bitterness toward his adversaries or regrets about his all-too-brief run of power. "If we hadn't done what we did, Koizumi couldn't exist now."

After his stint in Fukuda's office, Koizumi took another stab at his father's seat in 1972, and won. By now, he was a more self-confident public speaker and was learning to shed his congenital aloofness, at least when on the campaign trail. "He started to get more comfortable with the public side of politics, and was sounding more like his father," says Teruo Nakagomi, an old family friend. (Nakagomi, a barber, is the man who gave Koizumi his trademark haircut.)

The tight-knit core of advisers who would guide him for three decades was already in place, led by his elder sister, Nobuko, who ran his Diet office; his younger brother, Masaya, who runs his Yokosuka home office; and Iijima, the political operative who takes care of his media and campaign strategies. What Koizumi lacked was the vital player in every politician's entourage: there was no Mrs. Koizumi. In 1977, the inner circle presented him with dozens of photos of potential spouses, which he stacked high on his parliamentary office desk. The one that caught his eye was of a kimono-clad beauty, a 21-year-old university student named Kayoko Miyamoto. Her family was from Kamakura, an upper-class town of bamboo-shaded temples and hydrangea gardens, not far from Yokosuka, in Koizumi's legislative district. Her grandfather had founded a large pharmaceutical company, and she grew up in a wealthy, though not ostentatious, environment. On their first date, Koizumi and Miyamoto dined at a French restaurant in Akasaka, a high-rent nightclub district favored by Japanese pols. The next day, Koizumi proposed marriage. She accepted. Problem solved.

Six months later, they were wed in a large ceremony at the Tokyo Prince Hotel, with 2,500 guests, many of them constituents of Koizumi's bused in from Yokosuka. His political mentor, Fukuda, was Prime Minister at the time, and he and his wife flanked the wedding couple, toasting them before a big cake shaped like the granite, fortress-like Diet building. Miyamoto moved in with the Koizumi family in their large, yet modest, two-story home in Yokosuka, where she was expected to cook meals and clean not only for her husband, but also for his mother and his sisters. This is not unusual in Japan, where the wife of the eldest son typically moves in with the extended family. But she was also expected to campaign. "Sometimes there would be 1,000 people, and they would show me to a stage to make a speech," she recalls. "The first time I had to speak, I was so nervous I started to cry." Within three years, Miyamoto had given birth to two sons. "My life was like this: campaign, have baby, campaign, have baby," she says. It wasn't to last.

After four-and-a-half years of marriage, the couple divorced. Koizumi has never talked publicly about what happened, and Miyamoto remains discrete, saying only that it was a "situation between a husband and wife." The one person who will talk about the divorce is Koizumi's longtime aide, Iijima. "It was a political decision to end the marriage," he says. Iijima claims Miyamoto simply didn't cut it as a political wife. "If you marry a politician in Japan, you can either stay home and be a good wife, or if you want to get involved in the political life, you have to be committed." At first, Iijima says, Miyamoto played the part, but she soon wanted out. "Supporters work for him 24 hours a day," says Iijima, "and then there is this wife who comes in and leaves whenever she likes. It was completely disrespectful to his supporters. I told Koizumi: 'Choose between your family and your political career.' It was decided that they would divorce." Koizumi got custody of their two sons; as is common practice in a Japanese divorce, the boys have never since seen or spoken to their mother. Miyamoto, pregnant at the time of the divorce, has a third son—whom Koizumi has never tried to meet. Touchy-feely? Not in his private life, he isn't.

That ruthless streak will come in handy as Koizumi pursues his ambition to destroy old Japan. His ideological role model is Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, whom he escorted around the Diet when she visited Japan back in the 1980s. Her mantras are his: privatize, cut government spending and stop mollycoddling loser companies. It's the opposite of his predecessors' prescription for Japan's woes. They spent more than $1 trillion over the past decade trying to rev up the moribund economy; Koizumi has promised to end this profligate spending, starting with a 10% cut in next year's budget, and to shift funding from old-style, pork-barrel projects—building unnecessary roads, bridges, airports—to things like education, job training, information technology, environmental cleanup. At the same time, Koizumi wants to privatize, or destroy, state-owned companies and begin to sweep away the bad debts that burden Japan's tottering banks.

This master plan, if carried out to its logical conclusion, will yield a special bonus for Koizumi: it will end patronage politics, and effectively destroy the traditional LDP. That's exactly why the Old Guard will resist his reforms. It's a matter of survival. For now, they're playing their cards close to the chest. Their few attempts at publicly berating Koizumi have backfired; those who dared have been inundated with hate mail and nasty phone calls. Instead, they're poised to start chipping away at Koizumi's program. Already, the bureaucrats, many of them allied with the conservatives, have resisted going along with Koizumi's plan to privatize dozens of state-controlled corporations. The Establishment has pushed for another stimulus package this year. They complain that curbing government spending could push a deflationary economy over the edge. When Koizumi's ratings start to fall, which they surely will, they will turn up the heat and wait for his fragile power base of mass appeal and political outsiders to crumble.

Therein lies the Prime Minister's dilemma. To push through his agenda and crush his political enemies, he must retain his only weapon, his popularity. To do that, he has to ensure that the economy doesn't deteriorate any further, alienating his supporters. And yet, as he has himself predicted, reforms probably will make things worse. If you were Junichiro Koizumi, about now you'd be wishing your prophesies turn out just plain wrong.

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