By Richard Halloran
Japanese voters sent the world a dreary message with their parliamentary elections on Nov. 9, saying their nation would continue the same muddling drift that has hampered Japan for the past 10 years.
The outcome of the elections has dashed the hopes of those Japanese and foreign allies who had looked forward to an era in which Japan resolved its economic difficulties, nurtured a new political order, and exerted diplomatic influence throughout Asia and worldwide.
Before the election, the retirement of two prominent members of the "old guard," former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Kiichi Miyazawa, the elevation of rising star Shinzo Abe to secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the crimping of the party's divisive factions, and the publication of a political manifesto had pointed to an invigorating breeze blowing from Tokyo.
At the same time, the opposition, led by Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan, has strengthened its position in the parliament and perhaps more important, in the public eye. In the West, where majority rule obtains, Koizumi would be in reasonably good shape. In Japan, which is governed by consensus and compromise, Kan will be able to obstruct, or to force Koizumi to compromise on critical issues.
High on the list of those issues is the dispatch of troops to Iraq at the request of the United States, which is open to question now instead of being an almost certain decision. Tokyo's support of the U.S. war against terrorism, never popular in Japan, also has come into question.
Koizumi had been carefully moving Japan toward an independent security posture even as it retained the alliance with America.
Revision of Article IX of the Japanese Constitution, which forbids the use of military power to settle disputes, was a matter for debate. A gradual expansion of the self-defense force's capabilities, and renaming it the army, navy and air force, was in the offing. All of that has been set back now.
Economically, Koizumi's capacity to institute reforms has been diluted. In addition, and perhaps ironically, recent improvements in the economy will make change more difficult because opponents will be able to argue that reforms are not needed now that the economy is doing better.
As Richard Katz of the monthly Oriental Economist newsletter has asserted, Japan will not undertake reform until the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing something. He has argued that it will take Japan 10 years to get out of the doldrums because of its resistance to change. These election results reinforce his contention.
One exception in this untidy scene: Japan's firm policy toward North Korea will not change because anger over the abduction of Japanese citizens and fear generated by North Korea's ambitious program to acquire nuclear arms seems pervasive and governs the stance of most politicians.
A bit of perspective: The postwar period that began in 1945 appeared to end when Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, the "bubble economy" burst in the early 1990s, and the Miyazawa Cabinet fell in 1993.
Miyazawa was the last of the protégés of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering figure of the postwar period, to become prime minister.
Many Japanese and foreign observers, including this one, thought those events marked the start of change in Japan, that new leaders would fashion a true postwar era. That turned out to be an illusion as a parade of uninspired politicians, seven in 10 years, have spun through the prime minister's office.
Last spring, as speculation mounted that an election was coming, two conflicting views of Koizumi appeared. One held that he was little more than another of the bland politicians who had held the office since 1993.
The other asserted that Koizumi should be seen as the first of the new order in Japanese politics.
This election seems to have settled the question: Koizumi is cut from the same cloth as his six immediate predecessors, one of whom held office for only two months. Koizumi's only distinction may be that he will stay in office longer than the rest.
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times correspondent in Asia and Washington. Reach him at email@example.com.