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.