Japan’s top pick for next PM says big changes are needed


TOKYO • The Japanese public’s top pick to become the next prime minister (PM) said the country’s not ready for the scale of change he thinks it needs.

Shinjiro Koizumi (picture), the 38-year-old son of popular former PM Junichiro Koizumi, consistently leads polls asking who should succeed long-serving PM Shinzo Abe.

As the most prominent member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) new guard, he wants quick reforms to manage the country’s rapidly ageing population.

“If you look at Japan now, people don’t want to change much,” Koizumi said in an interview at his offices in Tokyo last Wednesday. “They don’t have big dreams, but they don’t have a sense of crisis either,” he added. “But it’s no good for this country to stay as it is. What this country needs more than anything is change. Not just change, but rapid change.”

Even though the younger Koizumi has never held a Cabinet post and limits his media exposure, he is seen by many as the future of the ruling party due to his charisma, clean image and a resemblance to his father. The ex-PM enjoyed immense popularity during most of his five-year run in office and was known for his willingness to stir up the stodgy LDP.

But that doesn’t mean the public’s completely on board with his agenda yet, Koizumi said.

Koizumi heads an LDP panel on social security, which last month published a “vision” for reforms to tackle what Abe has called the national crisis of Japan’s demographics. The population is set to slump by almost a third by 2060, by which time about 40% of Japanese will be aged 65 or over, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

In a bid to rein in the ballooning debt fuelled by the developed world’s fastest ageing population, Abe’s government is set to raise the sales tax to 10% in October from the current 8%.

Koizumi declined to comment on whether he agreed with the plan, saying only that “it has been decided”.

Rather than calling for higher taxes or lower payouts in its report, Koizumi’s panel urged a re-evaluation of the concept of the working-age population.

Older people should be encouraged to stay in the labour force beyond the traditional retirement ages of 60-65, becoming contributors to the social security system, rather than burdens on it, the report said.

“We have to correct that huge imbalance between those who are supporting social security and those who are being supported by it,” Koizumi said. Specific measures should include changing a tax system that gives precedence to housewives over working women, and offering health-maintenance incentives.

Koizumi speaks English fluently, which is rare in Japan’s political world. He earned a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University, and served as a secretary to his father before taking over his parliamentary seat in 2009 in the port city of Yokosuka, home to the US Seventh Fleet.

A poll by Jiji Press in March found Koizumi was the most popular choice to succeed Abe, with 24.4% of respondents opting for him. In second place was former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba on 18.9%.

“My field of vision has always been international, rather than domestic,” he said. “With the falling population, the domestic market is shrinking.

When I was head of the party’s agriculture panel, I said Japan’s farmers shouldn’t look at the 100 million-strong internal market, but must sell to the 10 billion-strong global market.”

The need to expand export markets was why he supported Japan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade deal at a time when it was anathema to many lawmakers in the LDP, which has strong ties to farming groups opposed to opening up agricultural markets.

“We were a tiny minority in the party. Can you imagine how much we were criticised?” he said. “But we can’t make do just with our own shrinking market, we need to face up to the world.”

After US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the TPP soon after his inauguration, the 11 other members including Japan went ahead without the US to forge a successor deal.

Despite that strong public support and four consecutive election victories, Koizumi is seen as too young for the top job by Japanese standards.

Abe was queried about his youth when he embarked on his first stint as PM at age 52.

Koizumi’s rivals to succeed Abe are now mostly in their 60s. And it may not be over for the PM, whose current term ends in September 2021. Some in his party have called for a change in the rules to allow him to run for a fourth consecutive term, though polls show voters oppose the idea. — Bloomberg