Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Japan's Koizumi Jr Faces First Political Test With Angry Farmers

  • Son of former premier touted as potential future leader
  • Koizumi seeks to win over farmers upset by TPP trade deal

Japanese lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi faced a dilemma when a group of farmers angry over the government’s trade policy and aware of his dislike of tomatoes handed him a bag of them to try.

"Actually, I don’t like raw tomatoes but I’m trying to overcome this," said the son of former premier Junichiro Koizumi at the meeting in the western city of Kasai. "But I’ll try them later, and let you know what I think." For the farmers present it was an important moment of honesty.

Shinjiro Koizumi
Shinjiro Koizumi
Photographer: Maiko Takahashi/Bloomberg

Getting the agricultural community onside is the first big political test for the 34 year-old who has spent most of his six years as a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker in low key roles, focused on recovery work after the 2011 tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan. Now he’s being mooted as a potential future leader.

His new task puts him at the center of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms and pits him against a powerful, and unhappy, voting bloc. Shinjiro heads the LDP’s agriculture panel seeking to sell Japan’s participation in a Pacific trade pact that will open up the long-protected and cherished agricultural sector to greater competition.

His tour of Japan’s regions -- which has drawn scrums of media cameras and cheering school girls -- may be critical in securing the vote of farmers in next summer’s upper house elections. Abe’s ruling coalition has a majority in both houses but his popularity has slipped over his efforts to expand the role of the military in the face of large public protests.

It’s going to be a tough sell. And it’s not just the farmers Shinjiro needs to manage.

"Shinjiro hasn’t yet experienced a set back as a lawmaker. But there’s a lot of jealously in political circles and people will try to spread rumors about him" when he rises in the party, said Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst in Tokyo. While he’s popular, he said, Shinjiro needs to step out of his father’s shadow.

Shinjiro was elected to Junichiro’s constituency in Yokosuka, a coastal city near Tokyo that is the home port for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, following his father’s retirement from politics in 2009. He’s just one in a long line of lawmakers in Japan heralding from a political dynasty: Abe is the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a premier, while Finance Minister Taro Aso’s grandfather was also a prime minister.

‘Sacred Cows’

Kenichi Tokoi, a freelance journalist who has written a book about Shinjiro, said the bond between father and son is very strong.

Junichiro Koizumi swept to the top of the party and the premiership in 2001 by appealing directly to voters rather than the traditional route of painstaking backroom deals with the party’s establishment.

Junichiro Koizumi
Junichiro Koizumi
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A maverick with flowing locks and a penchant for Elvis Presley and Richard Wagner, he pushed for "reform with no sacred cows" and got the ball rolling on the privatization of the postal service. Having served more than five years as party leader, a long time by Japanese standards, he called and won a snap election in 2005 and handed over the following year to Abe, who lasted only 12 months in his first stint in office.

Shinjiro has been more cautious. On nuclear policy, Junichiro has called for Japan to turn off its reactors immediately, while Shinjiro favors a more gradual phase-out.

Still, he’s not afraid to go against the grain. He didn’t cheer out loud along with the rest of the LDP lawmakers gathered in November last year as Abe called a snap election, and told a local newspaper in September that the party had contributed to a lack of public understanding of Abe’s drive to boost the role of the military.

"Shinjiro keeps it real, and studies very hard," LDP heavyweight and regional revival minister Shigeru Ishiba said in a speech two years ago. "He doesn’t rest on his laurels, and is constantly looking to improve himself. I hope he’ll become prime minister one day."

Shinjiro plays down the hype. The Sankei newspaper reported he told an audience in Tokyo in September he wasn’t aiming to become premier, but "a politician that people want to become prime minister." He cites John F. Kennedy as his hero. His office declined an interview request.

Time on Side

"He’s young and has a lot of time. I hope he can expand his horizons through a range of experiences," said Keiichiro Tachibana, one of four new LDP lawmakers elected at the same time as Shinjiro in 2009. "It’s important for him to understand agriculture so he can see all aspects of Japan. After that, work in diplomacy and finance and become a great premier."

He has time to learn the ropes. Abe was endorsed again as party leader in September, putting him on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader in more than four decades.

Shinjiro Koizumi
Shinjiro Koizumi
Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Still, he’s taken some hits as he seeks to make Japan more competitive. The government on Wednesday announced a general framework of policy objectives to help farmers cope with lower prices for their produce when the Trans-Pacific Partnership takes effect. The role of Shinjiro’s team was to make recommendations.

"I want to win over the understanding of the people, make the most of the TPP’s merits so that it results in the creation of a strong economy," Abe said in Tokyo on Wednesday.

In Japan a single farmer can have the voting power of several city dwellers -- an imbalance stemming from shrinking rural populations that has been little rectified through redrawing of constituencies. That’s even as agriculture, forestry and farming only account for 1.2 percent of gross domestic product.

Cabinet Support

The nation’s biggest agricultural body is a traditional, albeit fading, support base for the LDP. Backing for Abe’s cabinet among farmers fell to 18 percent in a poll last month by Japan Agriculture News.

Abe will be hoping the Koizumi mystique helps. Shinjiro’s appeal could be seen from the crowd awaiting him when he stepped off the bullet train at Shin Kobe station to start his tour in western Japan. The farmers, he told reporters, would be a different prospect.

"It’s going to be all a young squirt like me can do to face up to the suffering and resolve of the farmer," he said. "I’m already sweating," he laughed. "I’ll try as hard as I can and I hope I can be sweating in a good way by the end."

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