Prime minister defends first year in office

Saturday, April 27, 2002

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi marked one full year in office Friday with a spirited defense of his record, telling a skeptical nation that his policies are fixing the economy after more than a decade of stagnation.

Koizumi became prime minister after winning widespread public support by vowing to do away with politics as usual and revive the world's second-largest economy. For months he was seen as a refreshing force, and his public approval ratings exceeded 70 percent in media polls.

But those ratings have recently fallen below 50 percent in some recent surveys, driven down by bickering among Cabinet ministers and a spate of corruption scandals that led to the resignations of two high-profile lawmakers from Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In a nationally televised news conference Friday, Koizumi punctuated his claim that reforms are working with a piece of good news announced by the government earlier in the day: Unemployment was down to 5.2 percent in March, the lowest figure in seven months.

"Last year unemployment hit 5.5 percent and some said it would rise to 10 percent," Koizumi said. The 5.5 percent figure, recorded in December, was the highest since the government began keeping track in the 1950s. Unemployment fell to 5.3 percent in January and was unchanged in February.

Koizumi mocked critics who have repeatedly forecast economic collapse for Japan during his tenure, pointing out that none of the predictions of a meltdown has come to pass.

Koizumi also professed disinterest in approval ratings, saying all that mattered was his commitment to his goals.

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