TOKYO -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's tenure, which ends next month, has been more remarkable than perhaps most Japanese comprehend. The third-longest serving prime minister since 1945, his five years have echoed aspects of the careers of four Western leaders -- Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Rudy Giuliani and Andrew Jackson.
Like Thatcher, of whom it was said she could not see an institution without swatting it with her handbag, Koizumi, 64, cast a cool eye on his country and found it overregulated and enervated by excessive dependence on the state. Like Blair, who came to power disliking his Labor Party even more than he did the Conservative opposition, Koizumi thought that many of Japan's problems reflected the political culture congenial to his Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but 10 months since 1955. Like Giuliani confronting entrenched interests in New York City, Koizumi, who has called himself ``Lion Heart,'' made pugnacity a political philosophy. And like Jackson, America's most pugnacious president, Koizumi had an obsession, an emblematic monster to slay.
Jackson's was the Second Bank of the United States, which he considered a government instrument of political mischief and antidemocratic values. Koizumi's monster was Japan Post, the world's largest financial institution with 24,700 branches and banking and insurance assets of $3 trillion. Koizumi regarded Japan Post much as Jackson regarded the bank -- as a slush fund for political elites and, as such, an inefficient allocator of capital. All told, one-quarter of this high-saving nation's savings were allocated by the government.
Jackson destroyed the bank by withdrawing government funds. Koizumi has put Japan Post on a 10-year path to privatization. But to accomplish this he had to threaten to ``destroy'' the LDP. Japan's 9/11 was a Koizumi-engineered domestic political earthquake. Last Sept. 11, Japan voted in a snap general election he called after 37 LDP members of the upper house of the Diet blocked privatization. In a purge stunningly unlike the LDP's usual backroom brokerings, he endorsed rival candidates against all 37, and most of those he endorsed won.
Koizumi came to power in 2001, near the end of Japan's ``lost decade'' -- actually, 12 years of stagnation that engulfed the 1990s after stock and real estate bubbles burst. As The Economist has written, ``No country in modern history has moved so swiftly from worldwide adulation to dismissal or even contempt as did Japan'' in the 1990s, when ``Japan mutated from being a giver of lessons to a recipient of lectures.''