After Koizumi

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At a recent reception at his resi-dence to welcome a conference of global business executives, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi looked a man very much at ease. Confident, charismatic, sporting an open collar and no jacket, Koizumi said that he was feeling relaxed; this was the last day he had to endure a policy grilling on the floor of parliament before it adjourned for the summer. "I think no Prime Minister in the world has to field as many questions as the Japanese Prime Minister," he said with a laugh. But since Koizumi is scheduled to step down from his post when his term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expires in September, this was, in fact, likely to be the last time he'd ever have to endure such a session. As he worked the cocktail party with aplomb, the well-known audiophile said, with obvious glee, that he was looking forward to listening to lots of classical music and Elvis Presley while catching up with the World Cup.

To a large degree, the Koizumi era is already over. With the Diet in recess, there are no bills left to pass, no more policy debates. Koizumi is traveling to the U.S. this week, but few pretend this is a particularly work-intensive trip including, as it does, a tourist stop at Graceland after what's expected to be a hero's welcome in Washington. Calling the trip "a victory lap," one Koizumi aide told TIME that the Prime Minister's visit was purposely designed to be a low-key, personal farewell to his friend President George W. Bush at the end of five years of uncommonly good relations.

Victory lap or no, its not surprising that Koizumi should feel satisfied as he coasts into semiretirement (though stepping down as Japan's leader, he plans to retain his parliament seat). Few Prime Ministers have so thoroughly dominated Japanese politics and defined their era. For better and worse, Koizumi's impact on Japan's domestic politics, international relations and its economic environment will be felt for years to come. Before he unexpectedly took office in 2001, Japan had churned through 10 Prime Ministers in 12 years. Its economy was stagnating, its foreign policy aimless. Since then, however, Koizumi has ruled with a remarkably consistent vision that has buoyed his popularity at home and boosted Japan's profile abroad. He has presided over an economic revival, and spearheaded the most ambitious foreign-affairs agenda of Japan's postwar era, including his dispatch of 600 troops to southern Iraq in 2004—the first time a modern Prime Minister had sent Japanese soldiers abroad without a U.N. sanction, and an epochal moment for Japan. Last week, US ambassador Thomas Schieffer told a group of American journalists: "I don't think there is any question that the Japan of today is different from the Japan of five years ago. Leaders make a difference, and the proof of that is Koizumi. Under Koizumi, there was a fundamental change." Now Japan has turned its attention to the future. How many of the changes Koizumi wrought will prove lasting? Who will succeed him? Will they attempt to continue his vision or forge a different path? Amid such uncertainty, only one thing is clear: Koizumi will be a tough act to follow.

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