- Koizumi and Japanese Politics: Reform Strategies and Leadership Style
Over the past five years, Japan has been plagued by a string of lackluster and short-lived prime ministers, each of whom did his bit to shatter the public’s hopes for strong, decisive leadership. And the public’s hopes are by no means misplaced; whereas in the past Japanese prime ministers were expected to be little more than consensus-building power brokers, a number of developments ranging from Nakasone Yasuhiro’s administrative reforms of the 1980s to the changing leadership incentives resulting from the 1994 electoral reforms have raised the people’s expectations that prime ministers should behave like . . . well . . . presidents. Why, then, have Japanese prime ministers failed to make the grade in recent years? Uchiyama offers some clues to this and other puzzles in his comprehensive study of former Prime [End Page 204] Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō—that iconoclastic and risk-taking leader who did more than any of his recent predecessors to change the face of Japanese politics.
Koizumi and Japanese Politics is an ambitious book that addresses a broad range of questions, only a few of which are outlined in the opening chapters. Uchiyama’s primary objective is to explain why Koizumi had such a major impact on Japanese politics and policy by analyzing his leadership style, the nature of his accomplishments, his place in the broader sweep of post-1955 politics, and his legacy for subsequent administrations. But as later chapters reveal, Uchiyama also seeks to explain why Koizumi came along when he did and what was qualitatively different about him in terms of the kinds of policies he espoused.
The book begins with an insightful chapter on two key features of Koizumi’s leadership style and accomplishments. Like Hosokawa Morihiro and Nakasone before him, Uchiyama observes, Koizumi compensated for his lack of a strong party support base by appealing directly to the Japanese people for political support. Far more than his predecessors, however, Koizumi pursued a populist strategy that was characterized by skillful use of the media, a preference for short, easy-to-understand proclamations, folksy appeals to the public’s emotions, and the portrayal of conflicting policy positions as either “good” or “evil.” Uchiyama dubs this political style the “politics of pathos”—as opposed to logos, or reason—and highlights it as one of the main sources of Koizumi’s many accomplishments.
That Koizumi’s “politics of pathos” was so effective was in large part a function of the second key feature of Koizumi’s style: his “top-down” leadership tactics. In contrast to the decentralized policymaking system of the now-defunct 1955 system that required bottom-up consensus building among multiple power centers, policymaking under Koizumi was far more centralized and hence amenable to strong prime ministerial leadership. As Uchiyama effectively explains in chapter 4, Koizumi was the beneficiary of both the 1994 electoral changes and the administrative reforms introduced under Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō’s watch. Of particular note, he argues, was the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy (CEFP), a supra-ministerial body lodged in the Cabinet Office that empowers the prime minister to set the broad parameters of budgetary and policy change while cushioning him from the cacophony of political pressures that has proved so damaging to effective policymaking within the ministries.
How, then, can we explain the failure of subsequent prime ministers to live up to Koizumi’s leadership standards? Because the institutional structure of the policymaking system has remained more or less unchanged since Koizumi left office, the answer lies in the nature of a prime minister’s “human resources.” For starters, none of Koizumi’s successors managed to replicate his media skills or populist communicative style. Equally important, [End Page 205] Uchiyama argues, has been the nature of leaders’ political time horizons. Whereas Koizumi was clearly prepared to sacrifice his political longevity in an effort to fulfill his policy-related objectives, his successors seemed all too willing to compromise their policy principles as they struggled to...