Koizumi’s Kingdom of Illusion

The Magic


Nearly four years after he was first elected Prime Minister, promising to “reform” Japan even if it meant destroying his own party, the LDP, Koizumi did the unthinkable: he secured an even bigger majority by promising again to do more-or-less the same, having failed ignominiously in the meantime to advance a reform agenda. Though head of government, he won a resounding triumph by presenting himself as leader of a crusading force of reformers.


The occasion for dissolution of the lower house of the Diet and the calling of the election was the loss, by 17, of a vote on postal privatization in the Upper House on 8 August. When 37 members of Koizumi’s own party abstained or voted against the bill, he took the unprecedented step of calling an election, stumping the nation with the simple question “Yes” or “No” to the bill, which he described as the litmus test of his reform agenda. He stuck doggedly to the single point that the election was about reform and reform meant privatization of the Post Office. His decision to dissolve and call a lower house election in order to punish the upper house for rejecting his bill, and to resolve differences within the ruling party, was of dubious legality, since the only constitutional provision for confrontation between the Houses of the Diet, under Article 59 (2), is for the bill to be remitted to the Lower House, where it would pass into law provided it secured a two-thirds majority. That, however, Koizumi knew to be impossible.


Denouncing those who had voted against him as rebels, he dismissed them from the party, and in a brilliant piece of political theatre sent “assassins,” including a number of high profile, glamorous women, with no political experience, to contest their electorates. He likened himself to Oda Nobunaga, hero of the late 16th century civil war [1], and indeed behaved during the 2005 campaign as though he were acting a role in a samurai period drama. At other times, he likened himself to Galileo, implying that the need to privatize the PO was akin to recognition of heliocentricity. Like Galileo, he insisted he was ready to die if necessary for his cause [2]. The electorate stirred with excitement over the assassins, the dying for the cause, and the promises of “reform.” By polling day abstentions were down to 32.5 per cent, lower than in any election since 1990.


Elections since 1994 have been based on a system that replaced Japan’s old multi-member electoral constituencies with a mixture of 300 single-member, first-past-the-post seats and 180 filled by proportional representation. Koizumi’s LDP won (in the proportional section of the election) the votes of 25.8 million people (38.18 per cent of those that did vote, roughly three points better than Tony Blair a few months earlier). Overall he gained 61 per cent (296) of the seats, and his coalition partner, the Buddhist Komeito (Clean Government) Party, with 8.9 million votes (13.25 per cent of the electorate) took an additional 31 seats, giving his government a two-thirds majority, 327 seats in a 480 seat House. Despite the national swing to the LDP, however, without the support of Komeito’s religious votes, few of the LDP candidates would have had sufficient support to carry their single-member urban constituencies. By contrast, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), despite its 21 million votes (likewise in the proportional representation section) or 31 per cent of the electorate, saw its representation slashed from 177 to 113 seats. Its share of votes in the single member constituency section declined by only one per cent, from 37 to 36 per cent, but its share of seats was halved, from 35 to 17 per cent.


The Japan Communist Party, with 7.25 per cent of the national vote, got 1.9 per cent of seats (none at all in the single member seat section), maintaining its previous nine seats, and the Social Democratic Party (formerly the Japan Socialist Party) with 5.5 per cent of the vote secured 1.5 per cent of seats, improving its representation from six to seven. Seventeen ex-LDP “rebels” and one other independent were also successful and now sit in the remotest corner of the parliamentary chamber, either as independent or under the banner of one or other small new parties [3].


The outcome was one of the great triumphs of modern Japanese political history, but it owed much to the peculiarities of the electoral system. The LDP was far from gaining the support of a majority of the electorate, and indeed has not won it since 1963. The following table illustrates how the LDP has benefited from the 1994 electoral reform [4].


LDP Electoral Performance, 1996-2005 [5]


1996 Votes 39% Seats 56%

2000 Votes 41% Seats 59%

2003 Votes 44% Seats 56%

2005 Votes 48% Seats 73%


The cause of democracy is ill-served by a system that so grossly distorts the popular will. If the overall number of votes was simply translated into seats on a proportional basis, the LDP in 2005 would have got 183 seats to the DPJ’s 149, and the JCP and DSPJ would have won 35 and 27 seats respectively. When the Asahi totted up the numbers of votes cast in the single member constituencies, it found that the combined government (LDP and Komeito) vote at 33.5 million was around one million votes fewer than the aggregate opposition vote [6]. September 11 delivered a landslide of seats, but the media interpretation of a decisive electoral shift in favor of Koizumi and his policies was simply illusion.


While the LDP has been in government for most of the past half century, its opposition has undergone considerable change. The main opposition party today, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is a hybrid, unstable coalition that assumed its present form in 1998, made up of formerly “left” and “right” factions from the existing parties (both LDP and Japan Socialist party) that coalesced in the political turbulence of the mid-1990s. Though nominally an opposition party, in 2005 it was in basic agreement with the LDP on postal reform (though not on the details of the Koizumi bill) and on a general neo-liberal “reform” agenda. In 2003, it even enjoyed a measure of financial support from the Keidanren business federation, seeking additional leverage to its “reform” demands. In 2005, the DPJ failed to grasp that Koizumi had made the election a plebiscite on a single matter, and paid the price. Presenting complex problems and choices of policies, it offered little critical insight into the sort of society Koizumi was bent on creating and no compelling alternative vision.


Beyond the DPJ the opposition benches accommodate the Japan Communist Party, whose vote has fluctuated between about 2 and 8 per cent throughout the postwar era, the Social Democratic Party, which as Japan Socialist Party (till 1994) used to gain the votes of around 15 per cent of the electorate but slowly shrank to a shadow of its former self as today’s Social Democratic Party after the fateful choice made by its leader, Murayama Tomiichi, to accept the constitutional legitimacy of the Self-Defense Force (SDF) and endorse the US-Japan security treaty and the Hinomaru and Kimigayo as national flag and anthem, and now the postal rebel independents and several small new parties. Despite its 1990s identity confusion, the SDP was able to weather the Koizumi hurricane, even slightly increasing its parliamentary representation in the September election, by insisting on the principles of peace and constitutionalism.


No recent Japanese election campaign, and few anywhere, has hinged so much on image. Koizumi’s open-necked shirts, bouffant hairstyle, swashbuckling image, passionate and monosyllabic sound bytes, gripped the nation’s attention. Through the summer leading up to the election, he was at the centre of a well-honed government campaign to promote informality and cooler summer dress under the name of “cool biz”, discarding a jacket and wearing open-necked striped or floral patterned shirts that symbolically distinguished him from the conservative LDP image.


By contrast, opposition DPJ leader, Okada, in his dark suit and tie, looked the quintessential salaryman and his speeches as dull as they were earnest. When asked what was his favorite karaoke song, he replied that he did not “do” karaoke [7], which was tantamount to confessing that he was an alien.


For his part, Koizumi had not only marked his accession to the Prime Ministership in 2001 by releasing a CD introducing Elvis Presley songs but burst into an impromptu rendition of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” when meeting Tom Cruise in 2003. Okada and the DPJ misread the Koizumi campaign and its media grammar and were duly swept away in a wave of clever images and sound bytes.











(25,887,798 / 38.18%)






(21,036,425 / 31.02%)






(8,987,620 / 13.25%)






(4,919,187 / 7.25%)






(3,719,522 / 5.49%)






(1,183,073 / 1.74%)






(1,643,506 / 2.42%)



Shinto Daichi1



(433,938 / 0.64%)















LDP — Liberal Democratic Party

DPJ — Democratic Party of Japan

Komei — New Clean Government Party

JCP — Japan Communist Party

SDP — Social Democratic Party

NPJ — New Party Japan

PNP — People’s New Party


The swing towards the LDP was most pronounced in just those urban districts of Tokyo and Osaka, among youth and women, where the DPJ had in recent years been making most headway, even securing two million more votes than the LDP in the proportional representation section of the November 2003 election. In 2005, however, LDP leader Koizumi impressed people as “more anti-LDP” than opposition leader Okada. In their fear and anxiety, people turned for change to a party that had been in almost unbroken power forty-nine of the past fifty years and a Prime Minister that had been in office for more than four years, accomplishing little, but still looking and sounding decisive.


The Post Office


The election was called because Koizumi insisted the Post Office must be privatized. Yet nobody in Japan suggested that the service offered by the Post Office was unsatisfactory and Koizumi offered little explanation other than the mantra: “kan kara min e” (from public to private).


The Japanese Post Office is a unique institution, handling not only the management of 25,000 post offices and the nation-wide postal delivery system but also a savings and life insurance system. In that latter capacity it now sits atop the world’s largest pool of funds, a total of around 350 trillion yen (over $3 trillion), made up of 230 trillion in postal savings and 120 trillion in insurance funds (thirty per cent of the Japanese life insurance market). In scale that is r

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