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Lion tamed? Events conspire against Koizumi's crusade

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Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi campaigns Saturday evening in heavy snow outside Shinjuku Station.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Junichiro Koizumi's quest for an immediate and permanent end to Japan's nuclear power generation stumbled Sunday when fellow former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa failed to win the Tokyo gubernatorial election.

     Popular former prime minister Koizumi's ambitions were put on ice -- literally and figuratively -- as winter weather provided one more hurdle along his non-nuclear path back to national politics.

     "This is probably the last chance in my life to make a speech in the snow," Koizumi said in the final speech on the campaign trail Saturday evening at Shinjuku Station. "I will continue to work with (Hosokawa) to create a nuclear-free society."

     As in a Dickensian novel, the terrible weather seemed to portend the nearby troubles for the reform-minded populist. His bright green jacket appeared as a blur in a blizzard to those that braved the elements to hear him and Hosokawa speak. 

Tail wags dog

Hosokawa and Koizumi attracted more listeners when they took to the streets to deliver campaign speeches than former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who won the election. Koizumi talked about nothing but an end to nuclear power generation during a speech in front of Tokyo Station on Friday.

     "That's right!" "Spot on!" "Thank you!" Enthusiastic comments from the crowd must have galvanized Koizumi.

     "The reaction was great," Koizumi, known for his "lion hair," said happily.

     All, however, was not well. "Something is wrong, the former prime minister said in the final days of campaigning. "I cannot believe them," referring to press reports that Masuzoe continued to lead the race.

     He need look no further than Hosokawa to understand part of the problem. "We can't hear you," the crowds jeered as Hosokawa, a softly spoken man, began to talk Jan. 23 at Shibuya Station. Koizumi grabbed the microphone away from him and delivered a speech in a booming voice with big gestures.  Listeners cheered, Hosokawa watched.

     The tail was wagging the dog.

     Wherever Koizumi delivered campaign speeches, he expressed regret for his past mistakes promoting nuclear power.  "As a past prime minister, I cannot stay idle," he said, explaining his support for Hosokawa.

Eye on the nation

Koizumi involved himself deeply into Hosokawa's campaign. He believed that a Gov. Hosokawa would have a great deal of influence on national politics and that Japan could be changed if Tokyo were to successfully host the 2020 Olympic Games without nuclear energy.

     Powerful opponents were happy to watch as the strategy unraveled.

    Early during the campaign period, Hosokawa and Koizumi on Feb. 2 made speeches on a street in the bustling Ginza. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the same day delivered a speech in support of Masuzoe. Isao Iijima, a former close aide to Koizumi and now a special adviser to Abe, watched the war of words from a nearby teahouse.

     "Hosokawa always speaks first for 'Team Hosokawa,'" Iijima, a nuclear power advocate, said at the time. "Then his supporter Koizumi takes to the microphone, as if he was the candidate.They should have reversed the order, but they are afraid people will walk away after Koizumi, ignoring Hosokawa. This is doomed to failure."

     The more listeners Koizumi attracted, the weaker Hosokawa looked, Iijima said.

     "Voters believe in Koizumi," Iijima added. "Many will invalidate their votes by writing his name on the ballot slip instead of Hosokawa's." In Japan, candidate names need to be spelled out on voting slips.

     Koizumi, in a bright down jacket, stole the spotlight. One could have mistaken Hosokawa, wearing black and standing back, for a security guard.

     Iijima saw further weaknesses. "The joint appearance of Hosokawa and Koizumi at a press conference, on Jan. 14, to announce their campaign was shocking," he said. "But where was the team before Hosokawa officially announced his candidacy at a press conference on Jan. 22? The Hosokawa camp's weak media strategy was a reason for his defeat.  TV stations and newspapers treat major candidates on an equal footing after the official launch of campaigns. Hosokawa and Koizumi should have looked for exposure before that."

     Then there was the competition. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner New Komeito supported Masuzoe, and could count on their reliable voting blocs. Kenji Utsunomiya, former head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, also ran. His platform also called for an end to nuclear power generation, splitting the no-nukes bloc in two.

Against all odds

Don't count Koizumi out. "Mr. Koizumi's winning streak is broken," said Heizo Takenaka, professor at Keio University who spearheaded Koizumi's economic reform a decade ago. "But his myth, as a Don Quixote figure able to take on a million and win, lives on." 

     Koizumi has been down in the ditches before. After Takeo Fukuda, Koizumi's mentor, lost to Kakuei Tanaka in the LDP's presidential election in 1972, he continued to follow in Fukuda's footsteps. He understands the trials of being a fringe politician. 

     Losses have checkered his past. Before building seemingly unstoppable momentum in the early 2000s, Koizumi lost two LDP presidential elections. He found almost no support in the party on proposals for privatizing Japan's postal system.  Refusing to drop his quest for postal privatization, he took the reins of the party in his third attempt.

     "I am already a has-been," he said, "and I know people criticize me for working on this after retiring. "But I am a citizen. The one thing I should do as a citizen is urge people to stand up and fight for an end to nuclear power generation. It is a dream we can realize."

     Koizumi has suggested he will launch a campaign to end nuclear power generation. The gubernatorial setback, however, is likely to limit its influence on national politics.

     That is no reason to think the nuclear village can rest on its laurels. Koizumi's son, Shinjiro, is the parliamentary secretary in charge of reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. He has inherited his father's grit and operates on the sidelines of mainstream politics. Abe is unlikely to be able to forget the name Koizumi anytime soon.

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