TOPICS > Nation

Foreign Correspondence: Michael Zielenziger

June 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Tonight our correspondent is Michael Zielenziger, Tokyo bureau chief for the “Knight-Ridder” newspapers. Home on home leave. Welcome home.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Nice to be here. Thanks.

TERENCE SMITH: You have a new and very different style of prime minister to cover in Japan these days.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: It’s pretty amazing. After ten years of lots of blue suits, we have a prime minister who’s bringing to Japan kind of what Kenya brought to this city 40 years. He’s a guy who’s telegenic, who is well-dressed, who understands media and how to communicate directly with voters. Japan has traditionally been a system where bureaucrats and politicians met secretly behind closed doors. Politicians met among themselves to make deals. The prime minister before Koizumi was selected in a hotel room by five members of the ruling party. This guy is popular, he tells people we have problems, he tells people, “I’m going to try to fix them.” This is all revolutionary and brand-new to the Japanese.

TERENCE SMITH: And you mentioned that he knows how and has a feel for the use of media as a way of getting himself across.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: He has no choice. Junichiro Koizumi was elected because of a revolt within his own party. The old methods of fixing Japan’s problems– public works spending, construction projects– the country’s broke. And increasingly, my reporting…

TERENCE SMITH: Broke? Japan is broke?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Individual Japanese have the world’s largest accumulation of savings, but the country of Japan has equivalent to 130% of its annual output in debt. It’s worse than Italy. It’s a basket case. It’s in deflation. Now, no modern economy has had deflation since the 1930s. Prices are going down, and it’s not.. And it’s because people have lost confidence in their institutions. Junichiro Koizumi has said we have to have structural reform. We have to have some pain to get through this. And what’s interesting about the Japanese is they say, “yes, he’s right.” They have already seen a Frenchman, Carlos Gone, take over and take them from record losses to record profits in 18 months. They recognize that the old agenda of spending on our friends, protecting farmers, building crazy projects isn’t going to work anymore. And Koizumi says, “I’m going to change it and I’m going to slash it,” not unlike John McCain in some ways. “I’m going to go after special interests. I’m going to return Japan to the people.” And the only way for him to do it is the media. And so that makes him in a sense the first modern prime minister in Japanese history.

TERENCE SMITH: And has he struck a cord with the Japanese people?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: His poll ratings are something that Bush, Clinton they’d all envy. He’s at 87% on the polls. It’s unbelievable. The entire country basically hangs on his every word. And he’s even more sophisticated than that. He’s the first prime minister to tell the press that covers him, “I will come out every night and speak to the TV cameras.”

TERENCE SMITH: Every night?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Every night. George Bush doesn’t do that. Bill Clinton may have wanted to do it, but his handlers wouldn’t let him. Every night Koizumi will come out and speak to five or ten minutes to the press that normally covers him and explain his take on the day’s events, on what’s new.

TERENCE SMITH: And people are following it, and you would judge responding to it?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Japanese parliamentary discussion, like C-Span, is not exactly exciting television. There was a period about a month ago where Koizumi’s addresses to parliament and the give and take on the floor was out-rating the daytime soap operas. People were completely jazzed, completely plugged in. I wrote a story about a calligraphy teacher in Tokyo so excited about the possibility that Japan might finally change that she redecorated her living room. “Oh, my God, Japan is.. We’ve got a chance now. I feel so energized. Let’s put a red carpet down on the floor. Let’s celebrate the chance.”

TERENCE SMITH: That’s really something.


TERENCE SMITH: As yet, as you were saying, the economic problems are monumental, and the sort of political party resistance is pretty monumental, too, isn’t it?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Japan is an economy where the government, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and the construction workers and the protected industries have been in bed in this iron triangle for decades. The country can’t sustain it anymore. Koizumi’s problem is that most members of his party are in bed with those same special interests. So he may have to break the party apart in order to deliver his agenda, and that’s going to be very much of a high wire act for Koizumi.

TERENCE SMITH: Break it apart in the sense of forming his own party?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: It’s a possibility. We have upper House elections in July. They won’t be determinative. The issue is going to be the country is broke. The government this week, this past week, has announced the first outlines of its program to deal with the bad bank loans, to deal with the fact that the construction industry is bloated, to deal with the wasteful spending of government. But all of those programs attack the special interests within the ruling party. If Koizumi can’t get his way, he may either have to call for new elections, in which he can just go district by district by district and say, “you’re on my side, and you’re not.” Or alternatively he may take, what used to be called the anti- mainstream faction of his own party and merge it with some of the opposition factions.

TERENCE SMITH: And that would be a true revolution?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: That would be the long- awaited realignment of Japanese politics that we’ve been talking about for 20 years.

TERENCE SMITH: And theoretically could lead to the long-awaited economic recovery.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Yes, but as Koizumi himself has said, very, very smartly, there is going to be no game in the long term without a lot of short-term pain. Japan is already technically probably in recession. We know the last quarter was negative. I assume this quarter is negative. Japan never… You know, Americans are now worried about the Internet boom and the Internet bust. Japan never had the Internet boom. So we never had this amazing growth period of the mid-’90s that Americans had.

TERENCE SMITH: Has that had an effect on the spirit of people?


TERENCE SMITH: I mean, you were mentioning that prices were declining. I suppose some welcome that.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: You would think that lower prices for hamburgers and polo shirts and even condominiums would be welcome, but people see that as a sign their jobs are in jeopardy. And so, in fact, the Japanese are terribly pessimistic. I would argue the Japanese are the most pessimistic of peoples in Asia generally speaking. The polls show that. But they’ve been terribly pessimistic about the nation’s future, they know something’s wrong. And they saw that the political system couldn’t adjust. Now Koizumi is saying, “I hear you, I want try to fix it. I need your support to break through this iron triangle.” That’s why it’s a high wire act.

TERENCE SMITH: And that may be the reason they’re willing to follow him down the road.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Well, the people are.


MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Clearly the people are. The question is whether the institutions can. Japan is a system where the prime minister actually is rather weak. The bureaucracy typically runs the country, and the bureaucracy can be at war with the prime minister. He has very few supporters. He’s a loaner. He really is a maverick. You know, a maverick is a pony that runs away from the herd. I remember seeing Koizumi a year ago when the Mets and the Cubs opened the baseball season in Tokyo. And he was sitting all by himself eating a hot dog. And no one was with him, and he had no friends with him, and that’s kind of the Koizumi life. He’s a loner who believes in certain things, but is terribly stubborn.

TERENCE SMITH: You’d certainly never see a prominent American politician sitting there by himself eating a hot dog.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Certainly not at a baseball game. But, you know, he’s got two kids. He’s divorced. Even in the bureaucracy, he has people who respect him intellectually, but he has no real close friends. He likes to sit home in the official residence of the prime minister by himself listening to opera. So he’s a very unusual guy. He’s not the normal blue suit.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, you mentioned baseball there is a growth industry and a growth export from Japan these days — baseball players, including one, who’s a phenomenon in the Seattle area.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Ichiro is not turning on the Seattle Mariner fans, but the Japanese are going crazy.

TERENCE SMITH: This is Ichiro Suzuki.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Ichiro Suzuki, who’s the right fielder for the Mariners, who will start the all-star game. Now many of the viewers may know this, but the Japanese are voting for the all-star game. There are ballots in Tokyo convenience stores, and you can bet they’ll be a couple hundred thousand ballots from Japanese for Ichiro, which will guarantee him to start.

TERENCE SMITH: And they’re watching the mariners on television there.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: The Mariners are… They’re like my new home team. They’re about 162 games in the season. About 130 of them are on Japanese television. There was a period before Koizumi swept up the popular appeal that the lead story in the news every night was, how many hits did Ichiro get? And the night that Ichiro was clear was leading the all-star ballot, it was the second news story of the night. He is front page every day in the sports papers. Everyone’s watching him.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s great. We’ll stay tuned. Michael, thank you very much.

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Thanks very much.