Who misses Koizumi more, the Japanese people or the foreign press?

This week’s Economist and today’s FT both carry articles discussing the shadow cast by former Prime Minister Koizumi over the Upper House elections — and over his hapless and, according to Mr. Koizumi, kawaiso successor.

I have no doubt that there are segments of public opinion and sections of the LDP that would be glad to see Mr. Koizumi sweep back into the spotlight and the premiership, the greatest comeback since Michael Jordan decided that baseball really wasn’t his thing after all. But these articles suggest another part of the story: foreign correspondents responsible for Japan are longing for the bygone Koizumi days, when the prime minister was always good for a quirky story for the readers back home.

David Pilling’s article in the FT shows “Samurai” Koizumi on the campaign trail in Saitama, and documents how he wows the crowd, making Prime Minister Abe an object of pity, not of scorn. Pilling, of course, is sure to note the problem with leaning on Mr. Koizumi too much: “While helping to rally the LDP faithful, they also remind voters of the differences between his charismatic term and that of the less experienced Mr Abe, who has struggled to win over the Japanese public.” It is not for nothing that Mr. Abe turned down earlier offers of support from Mr. Koizumi; the Abe camp is all-too-aware of the differences between their man and the beloved Mr. Koizumi. Of course, now, with his government’s back firmly to the wall, Mr. Abe will hold nothing in reserve and so Mr. Koizumi is on the trail, cracking jokes.

The Economist goes a step further and asks the question of whether Mr. Koizumi or Mr. Abe is the exception as far as twenty-first century Japanese prime ministers go. I have weighed in on this matter before (also here and here) — I think Mr. Abe signifies a reversion to pre-Koizumi LDP governance. The Economist seems to fall on the other side of the divide, largely on the basis of the persistence of a Koizumi “anti-factions, non-faction” faction in the LDP, a study group of some thirty Koizumi followers who are “market-oriented and internationalist” and who will not, according to Inoguchi Kuniko, leave the LDP and can in fact draw DPJ members into the LDP fold.

I think The Economist overstates the significance of this Koizumi coterie. These Koizumians are a tribute to the power of his reformist ideas, for certain, but the very existence of the group does not automatically suggest that they carry weight within the party. Indeed, the strength of the Koizumi “faction” will be tested this month as the Upper House members elected by way of Mr. Koizumi’s coattails in 2001 face their first post-Koizumi challenge while being led into the fray by a prime minister who has actively distanced himself from their champion. And in the aftermath of the election, the LDP’s ability to entice members of the DPJ to defect may be tested if the governing coalition has to struggle to cobble together a working majority in the Upper House.

Whatever the future of the LDP, it does not seem to be going in the direction desired by Mr. Koizumi. Having fended off Mr. Koizumi and his calls to destroy the LDP, the party’s barons are not about to go down that road again — which could very well hasten the party’s demise, particularly as the political system shifts to reflect the ongoing urbanization of Japan.

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