Will the Young Turks Revolutionize Japanese Politics?

Will he or won't he? Never have the political plans of a regional Japanese leader stirred as much interest as those of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. While the appeal of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is on the wane, Ishihara has grabbed the nation's attention with his attack on Tokyo's fiscal problems and his blunt talk of what Japan needs. Pundits and the local media are hotly debating whether Ishihara, who quit the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 1995, will accept a recent offer to bolster Koizumi's fortunes by joining his Cabinet--or launch his own party to make a leadership bid.

Few pay attention when Ishihara rejects both options, as he repeatedly does. But, in fact, the influential 69-year-old pol seems to be adopting an even bolder strategy, one that could trigger an upheaval in Japanese politics. "The LDP is like the Soviet Communist Party on the eve of the country's disintegration.It must be destroyed," he told BusinessWeek recently. "The [Old Guard] won't do it, so it's up to younger politicians to lead the revolution."

Rather than found a new party, Ishihara plans to support similar action on the part of a younger generation of LDP politicians, many of whom are fed up with the government and the state of the economy. These so-called LDP Young Turks--including Ishihara's son, Nobuteru, 45, now Koizumi's Administrative Reform Minister--are demanding far-reaching measures, from tackling the country's bad-debt fiasco to reviving the political system. "It's up to us senior politicians to back them," says Ishihara. "Otherwise, Japan will never produce a Tony Blair."

The Young Turks are contemplating a revolt within the party or the creation of a new political grouping. And while it's not clear when they'll make their move, they are losing patience. In March, they pressed Koizumi to reduce the clout of LDP party factions and bureaucrats: By allowing bureaucrats free rein, faction chiefs push through pork-barrel projects and create slush funds for themselves. Koizumi ignored the proposals. "Koizumi failed us miserably," says Yoshimi Watanabe, 50, an LDP rebel. So he and other junior Diet members are "waiting for the right opportunity," he adds.

That could come if Koizumi calls a snap election, which he may be forced to do if his popularity ratings, down by more than half to 40%, continue to plummet. Another chance would come if the LDP's faction chiefs decide to dump Koizumi. Although he has been boxed in by the factions, the Old Guard still sees Koizumi as a threat and would love to be rid of him. In either scenario--snap election or coup--the Young Turks might try to grab control. The rebellion could even cross party lines, says Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 51, a former Bank of Japan official. "The younger generation in the LDP and opposition parties are starting to sense that the party lines we now have are irrelevant," he notes.

Will this group of rebels be more effective than others that have tried in the past? The Young Turks are confident because they are not acting impulsively but drawing up a blueprint for reform--and planning carefully. And not only Ishihara is backing them. At a recent town hall meeting in Matsuyama, in western Japan, frustrated voters asked Shiozaki when he planned to make his move. "The energy is building up, and the frustration is growing," he concedes. Many Japanese hope it's only a short time before it bursts.

By Irene M. Kunii in Tokyo

Edited by Rose Brady

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