Does Shinjiro Koizumi have what it takes to become prime minister?

Updated : 04.10.2016 / Category Politics

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Shinjiro Koizumi, director of the Agriculture and Forestry Division of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, inspects a farming house in Ise, Mie Prefecture, in March.

Shinjiro Koizumi is a chip off the old block. His skillful oratory and confident performances evoke those of his father, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Of late, Koizumi Jr. has matured into a politician who is now being viewed as a possible future premier.

As director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Agriculture and Forestry Division, Koizumi presently devotes himself to agricultural policies. But his caliber will be tested over the extent to which he can plunge the knife into the country's agricultural organizations, which cling dearly to vested rights.

Meanwhile, his neoliberal thinking, which puts priority on the principle of market mechanism, involves some risks. Public popularity and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin, meaning the higher the public's expectations, the larger its reaction could be to disappointment. Has this young politician—raised and protected in an ideal environment provided by his family—the wherewithal to become leader of the country?

In the appointment of LDP executives following the House of Councillors election in July, Koizumi expressed his desire to retain the post of agricultural division head: though he and others were allowed to name five desired positions, Koizumi selected but one.

Over the past year, he has visited farming villages around the country, speaking on the need to reform agricultural policies. The young politician has said his appointment in October last year was "unexpected," but in light of the farming policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, it was perhaps inevitable. Koizumi has taken a firm stance on the promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and has refused backing from agricultural cooperative associations in elections.

Zen-Noh chairman denies reforms
When he assumed his position last year, Koizumi was almost always accompanied by Koya Nishikawa, then chairman of LDP Research Commission on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Strategy (currently chairman of party research commission on agriculture, forestry and food strategy) while traveling around the country to conduct inspections. More recently, however, the two have not been seen together as often.

At the start of the year, Koizumi harshly criticized Norinchukin Bank, which administers the credit businesses of the JA group. "We don't need Norinchukin," he said. "The bank holds massive assets totaling ¥96.3 trillion, but it loans only 0.1 percent to agriculture-related businesses." As part of personnel appointments at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry in June, Koizumi picked up Masaaki Okuhara, then director general of the ministry's Management Improvement Bureau, as new vice minister.

Clad in designer brands, Koizumi usually travels around in a white Estima Hybrid vehicle, prompting comparisons with a "white knight." Occasionally, however, he visits farming villages in a pickup truck. In areas that produce citrus fruits, he will show up with a can of orange, gulp it down and declare, "Delicious!" before starting his speech. Or, he will stand on a plastic beer bottle crate against a backdrop of rice paddies and speak through a megaphone. He is willing to be photographed, greet people in his best attempt at the local dialect, and throw out a succession of corny jokes.

But all of this is meticulously planned. He records his speech, then listens to it before going to bed; he receives detailed feedback from his staff during meetings; and when an audience's response is poor, he changes his strategy and uses different jokes in order to "control the quality" of his speeches.

As a youngster, Koizumi went to Kanto Gakuin's Mutsuura Primary School, a private school in his neighborhood in Kanagawa Prefecture, and subsequently attended Kanto Gakuin-affiliated schools all the way through college. In those days, he was a baseball and surfing fanatic, and far from an A-grade student.

It was only after entering Columbia University's graduate school that this ordinary young man evolved into an individual with a promising future.

At Columbia, Koizumi studied under Gerald Curtis, a leading researcher in Japanese studies. After obtaining a master's degree in political science from the school, Koizumi started work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. under Michael Green, who is currently senior president and Japan chair at the center. An expert on Japan, Green was in charge of Japan-U.S. affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush—the U.S. counterpart to Koizumi's father Junichiro when he helmed the Japanese government.

CSIS takes in numerous individuals from Japanese government offices, government-affiliated organizations and major companies as researchers and loan employees. In this regard, the institute serves as a kind of hub for the political, governmental and business sectors of Japan and the United States. It was during his time at CSIS that Koizumi broadened his policymaking skills—and his personal connections.

After returning from the U.S., Koizumi became his father's secretary. In 2009, at age 28, he won his first House of Representatives seat in Kanagawa Constituency No. 11, riding the wave of the Koizumi family's electoral power base. After working as director of the party's Youth Division, he served as parliamentary vice minister for the Cabinet Office and the Reconstruction Agency and has frequently visited quake-hit Fukushima Prefecture.

It could be said that Koizumi became completely "pro-American" during his three-year stay in that country. His speeches align perfectly with the "neoliberalism and structural reforms" touted by Heizo Takenaka, chairman of Pasona Group Inc., who served as minister for economic and fiscal policy in the Koizumi administration, and others. Policies such as promotion of the TPP and JA reforms stem from his belief in neoliberalism. At present, Koizumi's solitary goal is for the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh)—which plays the role of a trading firm in the JA group—to shift into reform mode.

But something unexpected happened on July 22 at a joint press conference held by the heads of four major JA group organizations, namely, the aforementioned Norinchukin Bank; Zen-Noh; the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu), the control tower of the JA group; and the National Mutual Insurance Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Kyosairen).

It is quite unusual for top officials of the four JA organizations to hold a joint press conference; the occasion was essentially aimed at assuring the public that the JA group was keeping in step with the promotion of reforms.

However, Zen-Noh Chairman Yoshimi Nakano flatly denied taking a reformist track, saying, "We have no intention of denying ourselves." He then went on to say, "I don't think what we've done is wrong."

Four days later, Koizumi, in his role as director of the LDP's Agriculture and Forestry Division, visited JA Saga, JA's local chapter in Saga Prefecture—Nakano's home turf. After his inspections, Koizumi responded to questions from reporters and called on Nakano—who was in a bus—to come out, which he failed to do. Nakano also refused to issue a press release for reporters. Koizumi could not hide his anger, fuming, "How is it possible to have constructive dialogue?"

On Sept. 5, Koizumi visited JA's headquarters in Otemachi, Tokyo, with the goal of a face-to-face meeting with the heads of JA's four major organizations. The meeting was aimed at discussing JA reforms ahead of an extraordinary Diet session, but Nakano was out of the office on an overseas business trip.

Project to realize PM Koizumi Jr.
JA group executives are wary of Koizumi. Yet, with first-hand knowledge of political-world maneuverings, the veteran JA officials are tactically sharp. Agricultural reform was meant to be a symbol of "structural reforms," the third of the "three arrows" of Abenomics—the Abe administration's economic stimulus measures. But in contrast with Koizumi's showy manner, farming sector reforms are now focused on ways to reform Zen-Noh, with things now hinging on the trivial issue of how to lower the prices of agricultural chemicals. Zen-Noh will likely squirm its way free of these political endeavors and close the deal at a suitable time by reviewing the price of agricultural chemicals and other materials.

It now seems that Koizumi is in a bind regarding efforts to reform agricultural policies—a touchstone of his politics. Yet, he knows how to attract people, remembering the names of everyone he meets. He even addresses newspaper reporters he has encountered only a few times by name, as opposed to using the name of their respective companies. He also makes it a rule not to appear on TV programs or conduct exclusive interviews with specific media organizations.

Superficially, Koizumi deals with everything with impeccable flair, but in reality, this is the result of diligent work and the "study of regal principles" taught to him by a group of capable supporters. But the policies he so confidently espouses lack originality. His agricultural policies, in particular, simply parrot Okuhara's ideas. Koizumi himself has indicated the close relationship between the two, saying, "The name of Nozomi Okuhara [a bronze medal winner in the women's badminton singles at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics] reminded me of the vice minister." Koizumi is surrounded by a number of "tutors" like Okuhara as part of the project for him to follow in his father's prime-ministerial footsteps.

But this means that Koizumi the politician—raised in excellent surroundings—does not necessarily speak and act in line with what he actually believes.

After delivering a lecture or speech, he can often be seen asking his staff or event organizers what they thought of it. When doing so, his expression seems very naïve, akin to an athlete turning his or her eyes to their coach after having finished a practice run or jump.

The people in Koizumi's organizations and inner circles merely supply him with various detailed instructions—he is never exposed to external criticism. Bureaucrats and business leaders pay only nominal allegiance to this young man who could, potentially, be a future prime minister. Will it possible for Koizumi to overcome this hurdle? The capabilities of this lonesome young politician will hereafter be put to the test.

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This is a translation of an article from the October 2016 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.