Koizumi's Legacy

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Junichiro Koizumi swept to power in 2001 promising to “destroy” his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and, by extension, Japan’s encrusted postwar order. To a remarkable extent, he succeeded — though hardly as radically as he had hoped. When Mr. Koizumi, 64, retires on Sept. 26, he will leave a Japan with new bearings: a smaller central government, greater faith in free markets and a new assertiveness in world affairs.

But his vision of a new Japan has already produced a backlash among Japanese who believe he has destroyed, along with the bad, much that was good of the old Japan.

Yet, while his policies were often unpopular, he has consistently drawn high approval ratings from voters hungry for charismatic, strong leadership. Even as Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and other politicians have suffered for their endorsement of the war in Iraq, Mr. Koizumi — who to this day has expressed only the staunchest support for the war — has remained unscathed....

Under Mr. Koizumi, nationalist politicians and scholars who would like to whitewash Japan’s militarist past have found fertile soil and moved into the mainstream. Government-sanctioned school textbooks increasingly omit facts from Japan’s wartime history, like the use of slave labor and “comfort women” during the years it occupied Korea and Manchuria, or the massacre of 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese in Nanjing.

Japan’s troubles with its neighbors, especially China, eventually grew so severe that policy makers and scholars in Washington in the past year began expressing worries that Mr. Koizumi’s policy was hurting Japanese — and American — interests in Asia. But Mr. Koizumi’s open appeals to nationalist symbols like Yasukuni won him and his party votes, a lesson that was absorbed by his likely successor, Shinzo Abe, the chief cabinet secretary.

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