Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi
Image: Getty Images / The Asahi Shimbun

Tokyo eats lunch early, but I know I have a problem when Junichiro Koizumi asks to meet me at 11.30am. Our rendezvous is at the Aqua Lounge on the top floor of the luxurious Imperial Hotel, where he has booked a private room. Since the lobby is packed with elderly Japanese ladies on holiday, and Koizumi’s resemblance to Richard Gere has not faded with age, this strikes me as a wise precaution.

I am ushered into an over-large space with four low armchairs slung around a coffee table. I am on time, but to my discomfort the prime minister of Japan from 2001 to 2006 has clearly been waiting. Koizumi’s famous bouffant is as wavy as ever although it has been allowed to turn a natural grey. “They say we’re supposed to do this over lunch,” he says, after gruff hellos. “I don’t eat lunch.”

This is not good. My heart sinks as I confront the options: force-feed an elder statesman or submit a “Green Tea with the FT” from Tokyo, gourmet capital of the world. “I quit parliament in 2009. Since then I eat twice a day. Morning and evening. No lunch,” he goes on, then looks at me accusingly. “I skipped breakfast today.”

Phew. My formal Japanese is wobbling, and Koizumi has me so far on the back foot I’m in danger of toppling over, but at least there will be food, even if this is a cocktail lounge. Muzak tinkles in the background. We settle back in the Imperial’s armchairs, redolent of a self-consciously western, 1970s luxury now vanishing from Tokyo. It is a suitable setting in which to quiz the man who did more than anybody to bring down the curtain on Japan’s consensual, postwar administrative state.

As prime minister, Koizumi backed the invasion of Iraq and made annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine — where Japan’s war dead rest alongside its war criminals — advancing the conservative nationalism that is now the most potent strain in Japanese politics. His push for deregulation and postal privatisation broke the power of Japan’s bureaucracy. His ruthless defeat of traditional interest groups in the ruling Liberal Democratic party, meanwhile, helped to centralise power in the prime minister’s office. In every way, Koizumi laid the groundwork for his protégé and successor, current prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Now Koizumi has a new establishment foe: since the triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011, he has become the de facto leader of Japan’s opposition to nuclear power. The government says Japan’s remaining reactors are safe and should be restarted; Koizumi tours the country denouncing that as a lie.

He appears to be winning the argument. Only nine of Japan’s 57 reactors have restarted since the Fukushima disaster and polls show solidifying public opposition to nuclear power. Japan is a long-time champion of nuclear energy, hosts one of the world’s biggest nuclear industries and has few other routes to indigenous, carbon-free power, but within his lifetime, Koizumi wants to shut it all down.

The menus arrive and my heart sinks again. It offers shrimp sandwiches, beef steak sandwiches, hamburger steak sandwiches or vegetable sandwiches. Koizumi may be willing to eat, it seems, but without enthusiasm. A trim 76 years old, he seems in shape to fulfil Japan’s impressive life expectancy. “My weight’s hardly changed. This shirt I’m wearing is 15 years old. I got it 15 years ago. It’s not tight at all,” he says. The shirt is a smart, monogrammed number worn with a purple tie and a light grey suit. With a silent apology to Tokyo’s restaurateurs, I join Koizumi in a plate of mixed sandwiches. Interpreting my unease as hunger, Koizumi urges me to have a bowl of ham and vegetable soup as well.

In the eyes of politicians, maybe I seemed strange,” he says. “But to regular people, aren’t politicians the weirdos?

Besides his obvious sincerity for the anti-nuclear cause, it is Koizumi’s persona that makes him such an effective spokesman. Although his father and grandfather were in politics, and he came up through the LDP machine, Koizumi was a new kind of Japanese politician: a flamboyant, Elvis-loving maverick who forged a direct connection with the public, not a combed-over man in a suit. Unlike his contemporaries George Bush and Tony Blair, Koizumi found his reputation barely scratched by Iraq. No one in Japanese politics has come close to matching his popularity.

Baffled by his pop-culture passions, Koizumi’s contemporaries called him the “weirdo”, a label he seems neither to resent nor enjoy. “In the eyes of politicians, maybe I seemed strange,” he says. “But to regular people, aren’t politicians the weirdos? Just because I like films and kabuki [traditional Japanese theatre] and classical music and Elvis, does that make me weird? I just like them.” Koizumi says he once asked for a better English translation of the Japanese word henjin, which translates literally as “strange person”, and finally got an answer to his satisfaction. “I’m not strange or eccentric,” he says. I’m extraordinary.”

Koizumi may be contentedly retired, but his 37-year-old son Shinjiro has inherited his father’s looks, won his seat in the Diet (Japan’s legislature), and shares so much of his political skill that the question within the LDP is when, not if, the younger Koizumi will become prime minister. Junichiro is clearly proud of his son but reluctant to meddle in his prospects. “He’s an adult so I’m not going to sit here and offer advice. Shinjiro is a hard worker and he’s learned a lot, that’s true. He’s been getting out into the regions, visiting farmers, visiting disaster areas. That’s important.”

One lesson Shinjiro has learnt from his father is strict message discipline. Koizumi stonewalls questions on a series of scandals plaguing the government, although he has separately said it will be “difficult” for Abe to win another term as LDP party leader this autumn. Nuclear power is what he wants to talk about.

“When I was prime minister, I thought we needed nuclear reactors. Then in 2011, seven years ago, on March 11, we had the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, meltdown at the Fukushima reactors.” Koizumi started learning about nuclear power and decided he had been deceived. “Nuclear supporters say it’s safe, it’s cheap and it provides endless clean energy,” speaking louder and louder. He thumps the table, making the water glasses rattle. “It’s all lies. I promoted nuclear power as prime minister. I was wrong.”

Koizumi has worked zealously to right his mistake. He has championed US sailors who claim they suffered thyroid cancer after sailing through the fallout from Fukushima. The US Department of Defense found they were exposed to very small doses of radiation and cancers would take much longer to emerge. But Koizumi’s passionate campaigning against Japan’s “nuclear village”, reminiscent of his past war on postal bureaucrats, is highly effective.

“They said we’d have power cuts if we turned the reactors off,” he says, as we continue to await our sandwiches. “Well, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, they’ve mainly been off for seven years and there hasn’t been a single day of power cuts.” Japan has achieved that by burning more coal, oil and gas, I observe. Koizumi’s answer is renewables, but he does not seem too bothered about climate change. I mention Japanese companies are planning to build nuclear reactors in the UK. “Britain should quit [nuclear] too. Why would you build something so expensive when it’s dangerous?”

The door handle rattles behind me and Koizumi leaps up to help the waiter. Our sandwiches have arrived. They are dreadful. It is strangely comforting: Tokyo makes better millefeuille than Paris, better pizza than Naples and varieties of exquisite Japanese food to make a gourmand sigh. Delicacy and refinement, however, are high-risk when it comes to the hearty joys of a sandwich. Thin, crustless and dry on the outside: these ones would be last on the plate at the vicar’s tea party.

“Nuclear supporters say it’s safe... [but] it’s all lies. I promoted nuclear power as prime minister. I was wrong.”

Sunshine is pouring through the window and Koizumi takes off his jacket. Outside Japan, he is best remembered for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with George W Bush in the “coalition of the willing” against Iraq. Japan could not fight — the pacifist constitution does not allow it — but Koizumi pushed the law to its limit by sending troops who assisted the US occupying forces in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

The resulting shambles has not stuck to him as it did to Bush and Blair, partly because of how Koizumi justified the war. Spreading democracy by force was never part of Japan’s agenda, and while Koizumi did cite Iraq’s illusory weapons of mass destruction, his case always rested on one thing: the US-Japan alliance. “Our ally was in distress and they were going to go ahead anyway. It’s inconceivable we would not support our ally. And after that, when things were not going well, for Japan not to support our ally — it’s impossible,” says Koizumi. “I still think I was correct.”

The US-Japan alliance is so existential for Japan, Koizumi says, it is the one thing that might have stopped him visiting Yasukuni. “Given Pearl Harbor, there was a debate: if Bush said not to go, should I stop? So I raised it with Bush at a summit. I said, ‘Hypothetically, President Bush, if you told me not to go to Yasukuni, I’d absolutely go anyway.’ He just laughed and said he’d never say something like that.”

Koizumi is adamant that a Japanese prime minister has the right to visit the shrine. “Regardless of whether there are class-A war criminals, 3m Japanese citizens lost their lives, so why is it strange to visit Yasukuni where so many of their spirits are enshrined?” Critics point to the shrine’s attached museum, which portrays a tendentious and revisionist view of Japan’s role in the second world war. Abe has pragmatically avoided the shrine since 2013.

When I push on the conservatism that was one of Koizumi’s main legacies, he gets a little irritated. “Am I rightwing? Not at all. Abe-san isn’t rightwing either.” Japan is defined by its pacifist constitution, he says, which makes it a unique actor on the international stage. “We can only offer humanitarian assistance, not use military force. Yet still it’s bad to deploy soldiers overseas?”

Japan ought to improve its relationship with China, he says, but the US alliance comes first. “There are people who say we should dilute our relationship with the US and do more with China. That’s back to front,” he says. “The better our relationship with the US, the better we’ll get on with China. It’s crucial to recognise that.”

Japan is preparing for an imperial succession next year, when Emperor Akihito abdicates. Royal succession was also an issue during Koizumi’s term. By 2005, it was clear that Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife would have no children but their daughter Aiko. With no other male children in the imperial household, Koizumi’s government began to debate a change in the law to allow female succession, only to abandon the idea when Naruhito’s brother unexpectedly fathered a baby boy.

Although every hint from the imperial family suggests they are liberal, the ancient line of emperors is sacred to the conservatives who formed the Koizumi and now the Abe base. “It was a huge problem. There was such a backlash. I won’t say who but someone told me how lucky I was. ‘If a law passed for a woman to take the throne, you’d have been assassinated,’ they said.” Even today, Koizumi is non-committal on whether a woman should be allowed to succeed. “I think the debate about whether a woman is acceptable or it has to be a man will continue for a while. Although I think the idea of a woman’s acceptability is taking hold.”

About half the sandwiches are still on the plates. Clearly, neither of us wants to finish them. I ask Koizumi how he is spending his time these days. Apart from his nuclear campaigning, he reads, watches movies, sleeps in and listens to music. Any recommendations, I ask? He suggests Naoki Hyakuta’s novel A Man Called Pirate and last year’s Disney musical Beauty and the Beast. It is a choice that sums up Koizumi’s appeal. Many politicians would try to signal their cleverness or their cool in such an answer. Not Koizumi. He enjoyed a middling Disney musical aimed at small girls and he doesn’t care what you think.

We wrestle over the bill — another part of Lunch with the FT Koizumi has not quite processed — before he succumbs and tells the equally bemused waiter that his guest will be paying. Then with a quick peek into the top-floor lobby to check for over-eager fans, he slips out into the crowd.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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