TOKYO — While studying at the London School of Economics in 1969, Junichiro Koizumi received a telegram that his lawmaker father had died of lung cancer. Returning to Tokyo, he found a simple handwritten message from his dad: "Junichiro Koizumi, be victorious."
Koizumi was elected today as prime minister of Japan. With his ascendancy, the dark horse 59-year-old reformer will far exceed his father's expectations--and those of most Japanese as recently as a week ago.
The upset victory by a politician long seen as something of an odd duck--stubborn in a nation that idealizes compromise, passionate in a world of political hacks, idealistic in a system known for its corrupt special interests--has given many Japanese their best hope of real change in years.
Koizumi's honeymoon as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the nation will be short-lived, however. He faces an upper house election in three months, an economy on life support and powerful enemies in the wings. And he needs to enact reform quickly, before a fickle public becomes disenchanted, while pushing change through a political system that he's simultaneously trying to upend.
Even many supporters sometimes wonder who the real Koizumi is, what's behind his "Change the LDP, Change Japan" slogan and whether he has the qualities to pull it off.
That said, if Koizumi falls off the political map tomorrow, he's already made one lasting change. By forcing the LDP to name him prime minister against its will after it was overwhelmed by a grass-roots rebellion within the party, he's arguably changed the face of Japanese politics.
"That alone is a big achievement," said Hiroshi Takaku, an independent political analyst. "People have tasted power. The LDP can no longer go back to its old way of deciding leaders in smoke-filled rooms."
Reform advocates hope that this development can combine with lasting popular outrage, Koizumi's untested abilities and recent moves to weaken the bureaucracy and strengthen the prime minister's powers--and finally bring real change to Japan.
Koizumi, the fourth of six children, was born into a political family in 1942. His grandfather, also a lawmaker, championed expanding suffrage in the 1920s at a time when poor men could not vote. Koizumi's father took over the seat and eventually became defense minister.
Koizumi showed little interest in politics as a child. In fact, classmates and teachers from his district on the outskirts of Tokyo say he never mentioned his distinguished political pedigree. He played hooky to go to the cinema and at one point told friends that he wanted to become a violinist.
"He was a rather quiet, gentle sort of person, a bit of a literary type," recalled Shoji Ogawa, 76 and now retired, his teacher at Yokosuka High School.
All the while, however, he was breathing political fumes. He and his siblings frequently attended campaign speeches, and his parents stressed the importance of standing up for what one believes in, no matter the odds.
"Our father always said, if you're right you should stick to your guns," said younger brother Masaya, an LDP official in Koizumi's district of Kanagawa. "Maybe this was absorbed in our blood."
Junichiro Koizumi took his time getting through school, including a year off after high school and a six-year college career reportedly filled with ski trips and mah-jongg games. He caught the political bug while attending prestigious Keio University after working on one of his father's campaigns, and his decision to go into politics was solidified by the senior Koizumi's handwritten note.
"When my father wrote it, he was sure Junichiro would take over his position in parliament," said the brother. The framed note hangs in Koizumi's office and goes with him when he campaigns.
Koizumi ran for his father's seat in 1969 and lost, went to work in a lawmaker's office and won the seat in 1972. He's held it since.
Over the last three decades, Koizumi has developed a reputation as a reformer, albeit within the confines of the highly traditional LDP. Many of his causes have been anathema to the party mainstream, including broad-based economic reform and privatization of the national postal service, which funnels votes and money to the LDP. But he paid his dues, gradually rising to become health and welfare minister in the late 1980s and telecommunications minister in the early 1990s.
His personal life also has been rather unconventional. As a young lawmaker he had no time to date. He met his wife Aug. 25, 1977, in an arranged ceremony, decided on the 26th to marry her and received his mentor's blessing on the 27th.
The wedding, held a few months later, was attended by about 2,000 constituents and fellow politicians, and the honeymoon lasted two days before he rushed back to parliament. Koizumi reportedly told a friend that he thought it was a good time to marry because he was the same age that John F. Kennedy had been when the latter tied the knot.