Personality Politics Conquers Japan

TOKYO—How many of the 25 elected leaders of Japan since World War II can you name? For a half-century, Japan has been governed by a faceless system. Now it's governed by a leader, one whose mission is taking on that system. With last Sunday's election, Japan became the latest country to see its politics personalized.

Since April, Japan has had a new prime minister with extremely high popularity ratings and a bold economic reform program. The question was, Could Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi transfer his popularity to his party? On Sunday, Japanese voters answered, Yes. Now the question is, Can Koizumi transfer his popularity to his reform program? That remains to be seen.

What happened in Japan has been happening all over the world. In country after country, leaders have replaced political parties with their own personal followings. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did it in the United States. Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin did it in Russia. Tony Blair did it in Great Britain. Silvio Berlusconi did it this year in Italy.

Because of television, the power of these leaders is essentially personal. Voters support them, not their party or ideology. These leaders don't need a party or ideology. They have television. Television allows direct, personal communication between politicians and voters. It's a two-way process. Politicians talk to the voters through television. Voters talk back to the politicians through polls.

Koizumi's greatest skill is his ability to communicate to the voters via television. "He speaks as your father would, making many feel a strong affinity toward him," a prominent Japanese TV producer told Asahi Shimbun.

Japan has been in an economic slump for 11 years. The Japanese call the 1990s "the Lost Decade." Koizumi offered a way for the long-standing incumbent party to accomplish the unlikely feat of capturing the country's powerful desire for change.

Koizumi has proposed a sweeping reform agenda that would overturn assumptions that have governed Japanese politics since the 1950s. "Reform without sacred cows," he calls it. His proposals sound like what Reagan did in the United States and Margaret Thatcher did in Britain: Curtail public spending, downsize government, reduce public debt, and privatize public services.

The political establishment in Tokyo privately voices a lot of cynicism about Koizumi's reforms. His program faces serious and immediate barriers.

The Japanese economy is in a recession, the fourth in the past decade. Koizumi says quite frankly that his program will make things worse for two or three years. He wants the banks to get rid of a mountain of bad debt—action that would force a lot of small and medium-sized businesses into bankruptcy and drive unemployment up to 6 percent or 7 percent, levels unheard-of in Japan. His plan to cut wasteful subsidies to rural areas would cause deep distress. The result would be immense pressure to pump up public spending and undo his reforms.

Moreover, the U.S. economy is in a slump, making it much tougher for Japanese business to recover. In fact, many in Japan fear that U.S. businesses will rush in to buy bankrupt Japanese companies. "Japan could become the world center of trade in distressed assets," one economist warned.

Moreover, Koizumi is likely to face considerable opposition in his own party. Huge and powerful interest groups—such as the construction industry, which thrives on public subsidies—will try to thwart Koizumi's changes. What does Koizumi have to fight them with? His popularity. But will the polls be enough? Koizumi is already threatening that if his enemies try to thwart him, he will dissolve the lower house of parliament and force his critics to face the voters. He even threatens to split the party. "If the [Liberal Democratic Party] tries to destroy my reforms, I will destroy the LDP," he warns—an extraordinary threat coming from a prime minister.

Koizumi's style of personal leadership could work in the United States, where public opinion is a real source of power. But public opinion counts for much less in Japan, which is less of a plebiscitary democracy. It is, however, a country that goes for short-lived fads and "crazes." Who can rely on public opinion when, just in the course of this year, support for the prime minister went from 7 percent to 80 percent? The conventional wisdom in Japanese political circles is, "This, too, shall pass."

Koizumi's style is very un-Japanese—clear, frank, and outspoken. He is an independent and a maverick in a country that prizes conformity. He cultivates an "outsider" appeal, even though he is a third-generation politician. Most important, he's clean. No gossip, no stories, no hint of scandal. That's news in a country that has been rocked by financial scandals for 10 years.

Koizumi is not a consensus politician. He is a straight talker. He's the Japanese version of John McCain, the most popular figure in American politics—a maverick, an outsider, a man who takes on interest groups and challenges his own party. Imagine if McCain were President of the United States. With his bold and unconventional ideas, he would have a mandate from the people to change the system. Meanwhile, the political insiders and the special interests would be lying in wait for him, just as they are for Koizumi in Japan.