Koizumi's Feisty Daughters

Four years ago they were called "assassins," but now they are known as "Koizumi's daughters". They are three women elected to Japan's Diet (parliament) on the coattails of Japan's last popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, in the 2005 general election.

Back then the Japanese press labeled these women, and others on the ruling party ticket, as "assassins" since they were handpicked to replace and defeat veteran candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who had opposed the premier's pet plan to privatize the postal system.

Now they are in a battle for their political lives in the face of what appears to be an opposition party tsunami in the August 30 general election. Only this time they are led by an enormously unpopular premier and the only real issue is whether to give the LDP one more chance in governing or take a leap into the dark by putting an opposition party in power for the first time.

One thing is clear. The three feisty Diet women – Kuniko Inoguchi, Satsuki Katayama and Yukari Sato - don't plan to give up their seats without a fight. They plan to carry their campaigns to the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) in their constituencies by squarely addressing issues and criticizing what they consider the weaknesses in the DJP platform.

Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved parliament and called for an election at the end of August in the wake of the party's embarrassing defeat in the July 12 election for the 127-seat Tokyo metropolitan legislature in which the DPJ added 20 seats new seats. It was an outcome that even LDP stalwarts admit was an election debacle.

Aso himself appeared before a meeting of his party's parliamentarians and tearfully took the blame for the defeat. However, a short-lived move to replace him at the head of the ticket with somebody else - anybody else - failed even though polls now show that twice as many people prefer the opposition leader, Yukio Hatoyama, as the next premier. The party will sink or swim with Aso.

It should be recalled that in 2005 Koizumi ran against his own party: "Change the LDP and change Japan" was his rallying cry. Since then the influence of "reformers" in the party has diminished greatly. A handful of "Koizumi's children" have left the party to run as independents, but not the feisty three. "We're the strongest reformers in the party; we must return," says Inoguchi. Koizumi himself is not running for another term.

Meeting with the foreign press as a group, Inoguchi heaped praise on the former premier and touted his achievements. "We're very disappointed that Koizumi is leaving politics," she said. "He strengthened the hand of the politicians over bureaucrats." Not one of the three even mentioned Aso's name.

The candidates admit the governing party is battling against a very strong head wind. Public opinion polls are terrifying, the economy is in the pits, their party leader is unpopular. In a recent poll by Kyodo News Service, only 20 per cent of respondents supported the Aso government, 73 percent opposed it.

The LDP has a reputation of being Japan's Republican party, but the three Diet ladies hardly sound like American-style conservatives. Said Katayama: "People want better social policies. We need a firm economic base so that we can expand these policies."

Katoyama represents a constituency in the middle Japan that has a lot of automobile and motorcycle plants that have been hard-hit by the global economic recession, which would seem receptive to the opposition's message of change. But she isn't about to bow to the Democrats even on this.

"We're a microcosm of the economy," she said. But she is not prepared to cede the issue of unemployment to the Democrats. "Only we can do something about laid-off [temporary] workers. "The unions [which support the DJP] do nothing."

Opinion polls indicate that the Japanese public is overwhelmingly focused on issues of social security, pensions, health care and job security. Foreign affairs, security (despite North Korea's recent saber rattling) and constitutional reform barely show up in the polls.

The LDP began to go off the rails when the conservative wing, led by former premier Shinzo Abe, put most of its attention on rewriting the constitution to water down the pacifistic Article 9 while neglecting down home issues such as pensions. It paid a heavy price when the opposition seized control of the upper house in 2007 and still suffers from the perception that it ignores bread-and-butter issues.

The opposition DJP is almost giddy at the prospect of a huge electoral triumph at the end of August. Some are predicting that the party might win enough seats by itself to form a government without having to seek the support of minor parties. However, a little realism may be in order.

Koizumi's greatest gift to his party was the huge bloc of seats it won in 2005. There are now 303 LDP members in the 480-seat House of Representatives, which determines the government. The alliance with the Komeito Party adds another 31 giving the coalition a secure two-thirds majority. The LDP could lose as many as 60 seats and still form a government.

Meanwhile, the Democrats currently hold 112 seats. In order to obtain a clear majority, it would have to more than double its representation in the Diet. No other major party in modern Japan has ever pulled off such a feat.

Nonetheless, wild swings are becoming the norm in Japanese politics. Koizumi's landslide increased the LDP majority by more than 80 seats. A similar or even greater swing to the opposition this year seems probable, even if it doesn't result in a clear majority.

A huge "floating" body of unattached voters means greater volatility in the election, and greater opportunity for the opposition. In the recent Kyodo News poll, 67 percent of the respondents said "no" to the question: "Is there a political party you usually support?"

Asked what is the best thing that the Liberal Democratic Party has going for it in the coming election? Ms Katoyama said simply: ‘We still have 40 days ahead".