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Inside Japanese politics

20 years after Koizumi: How Japanese politics were restructured

PM managed tight inner-circle rivalries fortifying strong central leadership

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided to dissolve the House of Representatives in 2005 in order to realize his reform of postal privatization. (Nikkei montage/Reuters/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- It will soon be 20 years since the cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was inaugurated on April 26, 2001. In office for five years and five months, Koizumi is known for bringing about a major shift in the management of Japan's government, from Liberal Democratic Party factional dynamics to leadership by the prime minister.

In the prime minister's office, Koizumi managed to have the members of his inner circle compete fiercely with each other while at the same time uniting them despite their tense relationships.

Those structural changes in politics were inherited by his successors, including Shinzo Abe, who took over from the Koizumi government and achieved a historically long tenure over two stints in office, and the current prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who took over from the second Abe government.

"The success of the summit does not depend on the substance of the policies. What is needed for success is a thorough investigation of the personality and past of U.S. President Joe Biden. It's up to Mitsuhiro Teraoka, the chief aide to the prime minister, to show off his skills." In the prime minister's office at noon on April 2, Isao Iijima, former chief aide to Koizumi, thus advised Suga, who was sipping noodles, ahead of the summit with Biden scheduled for this weekend.

Iijima, who had served as Koizumi's chief aide for his entire term, continued, sharing a behind-the-scenes recollection of Koizumi's first meeting with then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

He recalled that when Bush was running for governor of Texas, an American businessman gave him a lucky charm: a demon-breaking "hamaya" arrow from Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Bush treasured the gift after he won the fierce electoral battle. So when at the summit Koizumi presented him with a "kabura" arrow used in the Takeda-style "yabusame" horseback archery, he was overjoyed.

The first meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002 was coordinated in secret by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Iijima was determined to make Koizumi's first visit to the U.S. a success, and he paid close attention to the props. But Iijima, it was well known, was competing with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda on diplomacy. When Koizumi made a surprise visit to North Korea in September 2002, Fukuda pushed the Foreign Ministry into secret negotiations, leaving Iijima out. Iijima was furious at this, so he teamed up with Abe, who was deputy chief cabinet secretary, to bring criticism on the Foreign Ministry. Later Iijima moved to plan Koizumi's second visit to North Korea in May 2004 through his own channels. This time, Fukuda got angry and resigned as chief cabinet secretary.

Conflicts between Fukuda and Iijima often occurred. There were times when Fukuda would reprimand Iijima and Iijima would argue with him, and Koizumi would close his eyes and listen, and then beg them to get along. Koizumi's centripetal force somehow managed to hold together the staff amid fierce battles for fame. The feud continued until September 2007, when Koizumi stepped down as prime minister and Abe also resigned. When Koizumi supported Fukuda's bid for the LDP presidency in late September, Iijima fiercely opposed Koizumi's decision to vote for Fukuda in the party election and in anger submitted to Koizumi's office a letter saying he was leaving as Koizumi's legislative aide.

Before Koizumi became a politician, he had worked as secretary for Takeo Fukuda, Yasuo Fukuda's father and former prime minister, so he had always felt that he owed the elder Fukuda a great debt of gratitude. "That's why I recommended Yasuo Fukuda for chief cabinet secretary in the Yoshiro Mori cabinet. And even in the following Koizumi government, I asked him to stay as chief cabinet secretary as a proxy for his faction," Koizumi recalled.

"Apparently Mr. Fukuda was hard on Mr. Iijima. But at the end of the day, if I had to choose one to side with, I would have trusted Mr. Iijima's story. I've never met anyone who loved his work so much. There's no doubt in my mind that he was working for me, waking or sleeping," Koizumi added.

Prime Minister Koizumi appointed Yasuo Fukuda as chief cabinet secretary.

In the second Abe government, which started in 2012, when Abe boasted a high approval rating and had no political opponents, Takaya Imai, a former bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and chief aide to the prime minister, and Suga, then the chief cabinet secretary, feuded behind the scenes. However, the "competitive coexistence" of the two men was similar to that of top officials during the Koizumi government in that it broadened the scope of the government's policy and became its strength.

In the current government, everything in the prime minister's office is said to be decided at the discretion of Suga himself, and there is no indication of a structure in which the diversity of the staff in the inner circle generates both friction and vitality.

During the Koizumi government, there was another actor in the prime minister's office. Heizo Takenaka, a professor at Keio University, served as minister of state for economic and fiscal policy, minister of state for financial services, minister of state for privatization of the postal services and minister for internal affairs and communications. Iijima was one of the people who expressed the greatest displeasure with Takenaka, who had the absolute confidence of Koizumi and maintained a relationship that allowed them to talk alone at any time.

Takenaka tried to push through a radical structural reform agenda, and Iijima became the "go-to guy" for bureaucrats in central government ministries and agencies who were screaming for help against this.

At that time, Takenaka proposed to Fukuda a secret recurring meeting called the "Communication Policy Unit" (CPU) as a way to coordinate economic policy and overall strategy. The gathering began with Fukuda, Takenaka, Abe, Ushio Inc. founder Jiro Ushio and Osaka University professor Masaaki Honma. Iijima and the other secretaries of the prime minister were not involved.

Heizo Takenaka, minister of economy, trade and industry, worked with Prime Minister Koizumi at the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy to implement reforms.

The five met every Sunday at 9 p.m. in a suite in the new building of the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo's Kioicho area to exchange information and keep in close communication on important issues.

Takenaka also tried to orchestrate policy and power struggles, saying, "Secretary Fukuda should tell Prime Minister Koizumi about this matter" or "I want Mr. Ushio to make a strong statement about this at the next government meeting."

"You have to have strategy meetings whether you have business or not," Gerald Curtis, a professor at Columbia University in the U.S. and a scholar of Japanese politics who was a close friend of Koizumi's, also advised Takenaka.

Few people know that these secret meetings, which could be called the second prime minister's office, continued under the Koizumi government when the position of chief cabinet secretary was changed from Fukuda to Hiroyuki Hosoda and then to Abe.

"The only time we took a break was New Year's Day. So we must have had the meetings a total of 250 times. It was such an indispensable function in the center of the government that even in Washington, if you said the word 'CPU,' it made sense." Takenaka recalled. According to an attendee of the meeting, at the last CPU meeting of the Koizumi cabinet, Abe said, "It's a miracle that this meeting didn't leak out for five years and five months."

Takenaka placed great importance on the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, which served as the government's command center for economic and fiscal policy, but he also gave careful consideration as to how to conduct discussions there. Takenaka held preparation meetings with Ushio and three other members from the private sector to formulate a strategy. He made sure that the four jointly submitted a radical policy proposal at the council. They would dare to throw "high balls," and even if they had to make certain concessions in the face of opposition, they would make sure that the discussion moved forward. He consulted closely with Koizumi and finally settled on the prime minister's order. There were 11 members of the council in total. If Koizumi, Takenaka and the private sector members united, they could win a majority.

The Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy was not a place for idle discussion. It was a strategic decision-making process to move forward with structural reforms that were being held up by ministries and the LDP. The "secret preparatory meetings," "private members' papers" and "prime minister's orders" were Takenaka-style innovations. However, not only the Abe government after Koizumi's, but also the current Suga government have set up a barrage of similar policy councils. Even in the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, private sector members don't seem united and have begun to make proposals in a disjointed manner.

The resistance forces, which emphasized the order of factions and members with vested interests in the LDP, opposed the Koizumi style of prime ministerial-led policymaking and often targeted Takenaka for attack. When asked who were the politicians who truly supported the Koizumi-Takenaka line amid repeated calls for their ouster, Takenaka replied that they were Taku Yamazaki, then secretary-general of the LDP, who was a close ally of Koizumi's; and Toshihiro Nikai, who was initially secretary-general of the New Conservative Party and returned to the LDP in 2003.

Taku Yamazaki (right) has been known since the 1990s for his alliance with Koizumi and former LDP Secretary-General Koichi Kato in the so-called YKK trio.

Yamazaki has been known since the 1990s for his alliance with former LDP Secretary-General Koichi Kato and Koizumi in the so-called YKK trio. Immediately after joining the Cabinet, Takenaka was invited by Yamazaki to a restaurant called Kinryu in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. When he and Takenaka sat across from each other, Yamazaki said, "Jun-chan (Koizumi) always sits at the end of the table here, and Ko-chan (Kato) sits at the top of the table here," showing off his long relationship with the two. He then called Koizumi and promised to support him, saying, "I'm having a drink with Takenaka-san right now."

It was in October 2002 that Yamazaki and Nikai helped Takenaka out of a predicament. At that time Takenaka, who was serving as minister of state for financial services as well as minister of state for economic and fiscal policy, proposed a financial revitalization program that focused on stricter asset assessments and the use of public funds to deal with banks' bad loans. The banking industry was fiercely opposed to the idea. Mikio Aoki, chairman of the LDP in the House of Councilors, was furious at a meeting of the party's board of directors, and the debate raged even within the ruling coalition. In order to resolve the situation, Yamazaki and Nikai made a move to establish new policy coordination meetings.

The meetings brought together the secretaries-general and policy chiefs of the three parties in the ruling coalition: the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito and the New Conservative Party. By taking over the debate within the ruling parties at these meetings, they served as a bulwark to prevent dissenting opinions from reaching Takenaka. "When we hold this coordination meeting, it means that we will approve your plan," Nikai once told Takenaka with a grin. The two were both from Wakayama Prefecture and got along well with each other.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai wielded great influence in the process of electing Yoshihide Suga as prime minister.

In 2005, Koizumi appointed Nikai as chairman of a House of Representatives special committee to deliberate on a long-awaited postal privatization bill, Koizumi's signature reform, and Yamazaki as the LDP's chief executive member of the committee. Koizumi had also appointed Nikai as the head of the party's General Affairs Bureau, which was in charge of election planning. When the Upper House rejected the bill, Koizumi decided to dissolve the Lower House and hold a general election. Nikai, together with Tsutomu Takebe, who was secretary-general at the time, led the campaign to field candidates and contributed to the party's huge victory. The privatization of Japan Post was achieved a year and a half later.

Nikai is now considered one of the most influential politicians in Japan and is thought to have helped Suga become prime minister. It is important to know that the source of his unparalleled power as secretary-general of the LDP, despite the fact that he once left the party, is rooted in the Koizumi era and has grown in the two decades since.

Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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