What Bush should tell Koizumi about the neighbours

EDWARD SEIDENSTICKER – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times – Published 11/16/05
Early in his premiership, Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s leader, proclaimed himself a reforming prime minister. For a while, it was difficult to know what and how he meant to reform. But he eventually focused on the postal system, with a plan to privatise it. The system, including its savings bank, was a conspicuous candidate for reform. Postmasters, particularly in rural Japan, had come to treat post offices like their private domains. Politicians, in turn, relied on postmasters to rally votes, and on the bank’s huge reserves to fund popular public works projects.
The postal savings bank has been called the world’s largest savings pool, equivalent to more than Dollars 3,000bn (Pounds 1,731bn, Euros 2,568bn). It has a distorting effect on many big things, such as political parties, the construction industry and the national budget. Mr Koizumi introduced legislation last autumn to privatise the postal system, including postal savings. It was defeated in the upper house of the Diet, or parliament. Thereupon, and it seemed a bold thing to do, he dissolved the lower house and called an election. His party, the Liberal Democrats, emerged with a majority.
From this surprising victory derives Mr Koizumi’s relatively new-found reputation among Japanese as a genius – after years in office. A few seasoned observers were less surprised than most about this victory, having discerned that the opposition was running a poor campaign. I wonder if much of Mr Koizumi’s “genius” lay in his diagnosis of weakness in the opposition.
In international diplomacy, Mr Koizumi appears to get on well with George W. Bush. Even the most critical observer must admit that they share an ability to get elected. No dark cloud of any magnitude hovers over Japan’s relations with the US. A redistribution of US troops in Japan has been agreed and it is not of serious proportions. There are no important bilateral disputes. Mr Bush’s much-hailed yet brief visit today is more of a picnic than a serious business talk. Mr Koizumi wanted his good Washington friend to be the first occupant of the splendid new official guesthouse in Kyoto.
Japan’s most significant differences, however, are with China and Korea, which, along with Russia, are its closest neighbours. Both countries resent the visits Mr Koizumi insists on making to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine consoles the spirits of those who died for the country. The trouble is, this includes “war criminals”. Whether or not they should be called “criminals” is questionable. Hirohito, the late emperor who reigned through the mid-20th century wars, was not charged with anything after the second world war, and so it may be argued that the so-called “class-A criminals” executed in 1946 should not have been.
The Chinese and Korean view – that those convicted of war crimes should not be honoured by Japan’s highest official – is understandable. Mr Koizumi could easily put a stop to the annoyance by ceasing his shrine visits. Not many people would care. Why does he not? Geniuses do have their defects, and pig-headedness is a common one.
The LDP has controlled Japan through almost the entire half-century since it emerged from two earlier conservative parties. This year, there seemed to be a chance of changing this bleak state of affairs. Some people thought that a matter other than the post office and its bank was of greater importance: giving the nation a two-party system for a change. In more than a half-century of independence and democracy (of a sort) in Japan there have been two periods of non-conservative rule. They have been brief, however, and in special circumstances. Now, perhaps, the time had come. Yet, it slipped away perceptibly during the campaign. So it was “deja vu all over again”, as an American baseball hero is said to have remarked.
America and its president need not worry about getting Mr Koizumi’s attention. It is his failure to pay attention to the countries nearest him, especially Korea, that may bring problems.
The Koreans are probably right to suspect that he thinks they are beneath him. The problem is not new. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, I was astonished at how little the Japanese seemed to care. It was someone else’s problem and the “someone”, a predecessor of Mr Bush, would take care of it. Perhaps that is not a bad arrangement. If Mr Bush had the gumption, he would delicately raise the Yasukuni visits with his host. The day Japan begins taking a genuine interest in Korea will be one for Koreans to begin looking to their bonds with Washington. China can take care of itself.
The writer is an author and translator of Japanese literature

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