Is Bush Having Doubts about Koizumi?

His lavish praise for Japan's Prime Minister also revealed concerns that the stymied reformer may not survive much longer

By Brian Bremner

It's always tempting to dismiss as meaningless noise the requisite back slaps, firm handshakes, and resounding endorsements that world leaders extend to each other during highly choreographed state visits. U.S. President George W. Bush's two-day sprint through Tokyo, part of a larger Asian swing through South Korea and China, would likely fall into that category. Then again, maybe not.

There was certainly something a little over-the-top about Bush's solid backing of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his Feb. 19 speech before the Japanese Diet. At one point, Bush called him a trusted and "close friend," remarked on his great sense of humor, and described him as a leader "who embodies the energy and determination of his country." He even likened him to Seattle Mariner slugger Ichiro Suzuki, stating: "The Prime Minister can hit anything you throw at him," a remark that elicited considerable applause in the ornate Diet Building.


  The truth, though, is that Koizumi is increasingly starting to look like damaged goods to senior Bush officials. That matters. The Japanese economy has been grossly mismanaged for so long, and current problems are so myriad -- a banking crisis, deflation, huge swathes of globally uncompetitive industries -- that Washington is starting to wonder whether Japan will be much of an ally at all by the end of this decade.

Bush, of course, said a lot of other noteworthy things in his speech -- about terrorism (he thanked Japan for its support) and U.S. commitment to the region at large. But when he got around to Koizumi, you'd almost thought Bush had been addressing an Orange County Republican fund-raiser. He wasn't just being polite. Bush was selling the Prime Minister to his enemies in the opposition, the antireform scorpions inside his own Liberal Democratic Party, and the Japanese public -- which, judging by Koizumi's appalling plunge in the polls, has started to lose faith in their maverick premier.

I have no doubt that Bush sincerely likes Koizumi and wants him to succeed. But I also have to think that Bush honestly doesn't know whether Koizumi will be leading Japan in six months. Japan, after all, has been the land of the disappearing Prime Ministers for years.


  Koizumi certainly has a lot of good ideas on how to pull Japan out if its death spiral. Pushing Japanese banks to purge their loan books of deadbeat borrowers is one. Dismantling the country's bizarre public-works edifice, through which the LDP doles out pork to powerful construction outfits as state-owned companies waste billions of yen on white elephants, is another.

The Prime Minister also knows that Japan will have to endure a lot of economic pain in the form of skyrocketing unemployment and bankruptcies before the economy can rid itself of excess debt, capacity, and labor. That's an awesome agenda by any standard, and Koizumi doesn't even have the full support of his own LDP. The party likes the old system just fine.

Bush's flattery isn't likely to change their opposition -- nor is it likely to help Koizumi very much. The basic problem the Prime Minister faces is that, despite the trappings of power, he doesn't really have all that much of it to wield. It's hard to see Koizumi -- or anyone else -- commanding enough authority to take a wrecking ball to the entrenched interests and factionalism that are the defining features of Japanese politics.

Koizumi can talk all he wants about reform, but at the end of the day, he needs the support of his own party, not to mention the bureaucrats in the ministries. And that's why almost one year into his term, he hasn't made much progress at all on reform. Indeed, the current recession might be more excusable if Koizumi had unleashed a cathartic round of reforms to secure growth for the long term.


  Worse, the collapse of Koizumi's approval rating, which has dropped from nearly 80% to around 50%, will embolden his enemies to stand in the way of imaginative policies, maybe even to try toppling him in a no-confidence vote. My guess is that, ultimately, Koizumi is going to fold his cards and let someone else in the LDP run the show -- or really get radical, dissolve the Diet, call a general election, and try to assemble a new government with like-minded reformers in the LDP (yes, there are some) and the opposition parties.

Bush and his Asia-policy team surely know Koizumi is in trouble. They can't meddle in Japanese politics, but they can clearly signal that Koizumi's tough-love policies are what's needed as they try to give the guy a boost. What they can't say, probably not even in private, is that Washington is starting to lose hope in Japan as a strong ally in the region.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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