The James Carville of Japan

Isao Iijima is succeeding at a tough job: selling Prime Minister Koizumi's reformist message while foiling his master's Old Guard foes

As Junichiro Koizumi leads his ruling party into parliamentary elections on July 29, the Japanese Prime Minister will rely heavily on the political calculations of one man. He is Isao Iijima, Koizumi's top political aide and fixer. Iijima is what James Carville was to Bill Clinton and what Karl Rove is to George Bush. Without Iijima, many Japanese political analysts believe the Prime Minister might never have scratched his way to power.

Now comes the next big test: Can the garrulous Iijima find a way for Koizumi to build on his surprise ascent to power -- or will the Prime Minister be crushed by the enemies of his ambitious reforms? Says Iijima, 55, "My job is worrying about the next election, so that he doesn't have to."


  So far, Iijima's strategizing -- along with Koizumi's charm -- seems to be working. Iijima is credited with keeping Koizumi's two-month-old administration on message and popular with the Japanese public. While such spin doctoring is rife in the West (remember Carville's "It's the economy, stupid?"), it's quite new in Japan, where heads of state have needed only to please their patrons in the Liberal Democratic Party. However, Koizumi, a maverick hated by the LDP Old Guard, must keep wowing the voters.

So far, so good. Koizumi the Compassionate recently ordered bureaucrats to stop opposing court-ordered compensation for leprosy patients ostracized by the state -- and Iijima made sure the cameras were rolling when the Prime Minister met the victims.

In addition to serving as an image-maker, Iijima is Koizumi's chief envoy to LDP bigwigs and state bureaucrats, which gives him great power. He's now busy sounding out Party brass to ensure passage of such thorny legislative proposals as halting the use of gasoline-tax revenue to build roads and privatizing the state-run postal bank. He also advises Koizumi on where to campaign, which gives Iijima pull among rank-and-file legislators and local LDP chapters. Iijima is so busy networking that his two cell phones ring constantly.


  It was Koizumi's penchant for tackling vested interests that prompted Iijima to quit his job as a patent lawyer's assistant in 1972 and work for the then-freshman lawmaker. The two have since become Japan's political odd couple: the reserved, blue-blooded Koizumi and brash, blue-collar Iijima. "People say the way to hurt Koizumi is to take me out of action," jokes Iijima.

There are those who would love to see that happen. Detractors say Iijima's brusqueness can backfire. In the late '90s, when Koizumi was Minister of Health, Iijima's personal style alienated many ministry bureaucrats. But if Iijima courts controversy, he's not alone in doing so. His proposed privatizing of the savings-bank system run by the postal service has deeply angered the powerful postal workers' union.

Iijima's recently published book about Japan's tawdry political system hasn't made him any friends, either. A Lawmaker's Aide: Funny but True Stories about Japan's Capitol Hill relates how unnamed candidates buy votes by inserting 500 yen ($4) coins into rice balls and folding 10,000 yen ($80) notes into raw steaks dropped off at homes in contested districts. The tome has become a best-seller in Japan, much to the dismay of Iijima's detractors. "You have to wonder how a guy as busy as he claims to be can find the time to write a book," snipes one legislative aide.


  Still, Iijima's unusually close working relationship with Koizumi is the envy of Japan's political world. Iijima is "like a clone of Koizumi [and he] knows all the right buttons to push," marvels Hiroshi Nakada, who was an aide to former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. "I'd love to have an Iijima working for me."

Koizumi will need all the help he can get. Even if the LDP wins the vote later this month, it's unclear how much a victory will help the Prime Minister. Some of the fiercest opposition to his reformist agenda comes from within his own party. Again, Iijima demonstrates his grit. Should lawmakers block reform, he says, Koizumi won't hesitate to dissolve the powerful lower house of the Japanese Diet.

"If the Old Guard resists, they'll be swept away in new lower-house elections," says Iijima. Spoken like a man who knows power -- and how to wield it.

By Chester Dawson in Tokyo

Edited by Michael Sherrill

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