Leading article: Behind a modern face, there is too little change in an ossified nation

Mr Koizumi's personal energy and relaxed manner made him a distinctive political character. He was prepared to take risks


The governing party in a major developed country is facing a hard-fought and potentially transforming leadership contest - and it is not the Labour Party in Britain. Yesterday's confirmation by Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, that he will be a candidate for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party fires the starting pistol for the race to be Japan's next Prime Minister. Junichiro Koizumi steps down later this month, after more than five years in power.

Although two other candidates have already announced their intentions, it was Mr Abe's announcement that was most keenly awaited. A scion of one of Japan's best-known political families, he was already the favourite for the job even as he kept his party guessing. Mr Koizumi came close to endorsing Mr Abe yesterday, hailing him as "the most kindred spirit" of the contenders.

The similarities between Mr Abe and Mr Koizumi are striking, as are the differences. Mr Abe, like Mr Koizumi when he became party leader, is young by the standards of Japanese politics. This could be a handicap for him in a party, and a country, where age is valued and respected. Mr Koizumi's personal energy, relaxed manner, even eccentricity, made him a distinctive political character. He was also prepared to take risks - such as the election he fought, and won, on the single issue of privatising the post office.

Mr Abe's more conventional approach may mean that he has less freedom of manoeuvre. As chief secretary in Mr Koizumi's cabinet, however, he shares responsibility for the consistent, free market economic policies the government has pursued. While criticised for its fiscal caution, by the US among others, this policy combination has served Japan well, allowing it to emerge from the recession that followed the South-east Asian currency crisis.

Growth may still be slow, but it was judged steady enough for the Japanese central bank to abandon its 0 per cent interest rate policy in July. This supplied a neat coda to Mr Koizumi's tenure as Prime Minister and should afford his successor a more auspicious initiation than he himself enjoyed.

It is on foreign policy that Mr Koizumi's legacy is more contentious. He won his first general election as party leader at least in part on a promise to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, especially towards China and North Korea. The ceremonial visits he paid to the Yasukuni shrine - which commemorates Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals - not only infuriated China but also raised questions about Japanese attitudes towards the war.

At the same time, however, Mr Koizumi brought Japan more into the international mainstream by offering troops for peace-keeping, including a small contingent - now withdrawn - for Iraq. Mr Abe proposes more of the same, including a revision of the pacifist constitution to re-designate the country's self-defence forces as a regular army. If this were to presage a greater co-operative role for Tokyo in the global arena, this is to be welcomed. But the difficulty for Japan of assuming a role commensurate with its economic power, without giving the appearance of unhealthy nationalism, should not be underestimated.

Whoever inherits Mr Koizumi's mantle, the LPD contest will constitute only the first, and probably lesser, challenge. The new party leader faces a general election next July. The voters will then have to decide whether to play safe with the LPD or risk a change. Mr Koizumi presented a more modern face of Japan to the world but made little impact on the ossified political structures at home. That is the task that his successor, whoever it is, must address.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent