JAPAN Leader mixes tradition, reform
Junichiro Koizumi consistently receives 50 percent or more support in polls.
TOKYO (AP) -- Junichiro Koizumi took office vowing to tear his ruling party apart and remake it, and for four years as prime minister he has pushed radical government reform.
Yet the man who has outsmarted critics while shattering political convention and has won wide popularity by embodying the campaign to transform Japan into a leaner, more forward-looking nation comes from a thoroughly traditional background.
A graduate of Tokyo's prestigious Keio University, which has long been a breeding ground of politicians and bureaucrats, the 63-year-old Koizumi is the heir to a minor political dynasty: His grandfather was a posts minister and his father headed the defense agency as members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for nearly all of the past 50 years.
While still in his 20s, Koizumi interrupted a stint at University College London, where he was studying English, to make his first political campaign. As politicians' sons often do in Japan, he sought the parliament seat left empty by the death of his father.
Though he lost that 1969 race, he was taken under the wing of LDP lawmaker Takeo Fukuda, who later became prime minister.
Koizumi ran successfully for parliament in 1972, when he was 30. He has been re-elected 11 times from his district, which is centered on Yokosuka, his hometown just south of Tokyo that has long been a major Japanese navy port and is home to the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet.
Though Koizumi is a divorced father -- a first for a Japanese prime minister -- he guards his privacy and little is said here of his personal life other than the frequent references to his trademark silver mane and his penchants for hard rock and Elvis.
He won his first Cabinet post in 1988 as minister of health. In 1992, he became head of the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, and reform of the postal system's cash-rich savings and insurance programs soon became the cornerstone of his political platform.
After unsuccessful bids in 1995 and 1998, Koizumi became head of the LDP and prime minister in 2001, taking office as a widely popular reformer with bold plans to overhaul Japan's economy and eliminate his party's pork-barrel politics.
His rise to power included the unusual promise to "destroy" the party that had made him its president so it could be rebuilt from the ground up.
His structural reforms, including capping government spending and cleaning up the country's debt-laden banks, have been only partially successful.
Even so, he remains one of the most popular prime ministers Japan has ever had, consistently receiving 50 percent or higher support in public opinion polls.
While pursuing reform at home, Koizumi is not likely to change his approach in foreign matters.
A strong backer of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, he has dispatched noncombat troops to both areas. He also supports amending Japan's pacifist constitution to give the military more freedom to act overseas, although he said late Sunday he would not pursue that goal in his final year as prime minister.
Japan also is one of the United States' negotiating partners in the effort to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine have worsened tensions with China and South Korea, which consider the site a glorification of Japan's past aggressions. He has refused to say whether he would continue the visits.
Japan's campaign to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council has lost steam, in part because of opposition by China.