Political Elvis


Imagine an amalgamation of Margaret Thatcher, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, and Elvis Presley. Can't quite see it? Visit Japan.

Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi—who presides over the world's second-largest economy—may be just such a creature. He's a privatization promoter, supply-sider, and e-zine auteur. And a rising pop culture icon.

Last April, Koizumi became Japan's eighth prime minister in 10 years. Unlike his quickly dispatched predecessors, he is enjoying favorable ratings that zoom upward of 80 percent. His smile beams from T-shirts, coffee mugs, and collectible plates as Japanese citizens celebrate a leader who they hope can finally pull their nation out of its long economic slump.

They also like his e-zine, Lion Heart, which boasts 1 million e-mail subscribers. In it, Koizumi discusses ministry activity but also waxes philosophical on the personal toll of political fame: "I am a 24-hour bird in a cage."

The public stands by him even though the economic restructuring Koizumi has promised is likely to worsen unemployment in the near term. (He openly advocates "structural reform with no sacred cows.") Unemployment currently hovers around 5 percent, high by Japanese standards. Part of Koizumi's massive popularity no doubt arises from promises to create a social safety net to help the jobless.

The only group that appears alarmed so far is his fellow pols and bureaucrats, who are stunned by proposals to trim pork-barrel spending, streamline services, and privatize the country's wildly inefficient public corporations, the government-supported companies that handle the business generated by public policy—building bridges, digging for oil, and so forth.

Japanese bureaucrats profit immensely from the big-government status quo. In exchange for representing the interests of the various corporations in the ministries that are supposed to supervise them, they're offered cushy, remunerative board positions after they retire. Given that, Koizumi's reforms are certain to face powerful opposition.

Vested interests aside, the public corporation system is deeply troubled. Take the Japan Highway Public Corporation, which the new administration has discussed privatizing or abolishing entirely.

Its debt is 10 times its annual operating income, equivalent to 30 percent of the government's annual budget. The corporation—and its buddies in the construction industry—has a penchant for building huge new expressways that hardly anyone uses. The Daily Yomiuri reports that one, the Trans-Hokkaido Expressway, has been dubbed by locals a "political road."