Although now retired from politics, Junichiro Koizumi is still remembered as the most charismatic and at times eccentric Japanese prime minister of recent times. In an era when prime ministers have barely had time to unpack their bags before being shown the door, Koizumi lasted for five and a half years – from 2001 to 2006. He left politics in 2009 and since then has kept his opinions largely to himself.
Koizumi, AKA Jun-chan – with the leonine hair and a well-documented love of Elvis – has suddenly found himself at the centre of a political storm that has been brewing all year. After the disaster in Fukushima in 2011, Koizumi decided that Japan should abandon nuclear power. He said little but then gave an interview to a Japanese newspaper this summer, saying that a trip to Europe to look at the nuclear waste situation there had confirmed what he already thought. Not only is nuclear power uncontrollable, he argued, but Japan has nowhere to dispose of nuclear waste and no prospect of finding any new sites while public opinion is so strongly against it.
This from a man who led the pro-nuclear LDP and supported the nuclear industry while he was in charge. He has also long been a mentor to current prime minster Shinzo Abe who is in favour of restarting Japan’s reactors, all now switched off for safety checks.
When the conservative newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun took Koizumi to task for his outspoken views, it put forward the usual arguments in favour of nuclear power, throwing in that Koizumi was being "irresponsible" and had no business complaining about a situation he had played a part in creating anyway. Koizumi fought back with an angry letter attacking the paper’s stance. It was unheard of – no politician had dared taken on the editorial might of the newspaper with the biggest circulation in the world.
Koizumi has always been free, almost cavalier, with his opinions. But he cannot simply be dismissed as a maverick. At a press conference at the Japan Press Centre last week, more than 350 reporters and members turned up to hear him denounce nuclear power. Nobody, he said, has had more favourable conditions to create a nuclear-free Japan than Abe; the opposition favours getting rid of nuclear power and half of LDP politicians privately feel the same way but cannot speak up while Abe is promoting the opposite policy.
To those who criticise him for changing his mind, Koizumi responds with characteristically unapologetic candour. People often change their minds, he has said. Just because he did one thing in power, it shouldn’t mean he can’t correct himself now. Wouldn’t it be better, he said, to spend the vast amounts of money it would cost to secure nuclear waste sites on developing alternative sources of energy?
The LDP is doing its best to ignore the anti-nuclear epiphany of its former leader, although Abe did trot out the ‘irresponsible’ line on television recently. The public, however, seems to be behind Koizumi with 60% of people in a recent Asahi Shimbun poll supporting his views.
That such a high-profile LDP politician should turn his back on nuclear power might be an awkward situation for the governing party but it is a gift for the anti-nuclear movement, which has been running out of steam.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief.