Seeking revenge like so many warlords of Japanese myth and history, Koizumi reserved particular wrath for the 37 lawmakers from his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who had opposed the postal-system bill. He ordered LDP headquarters to withdraw support from those rebels running in the election and personally dispatched a coterie of handpicked, telegenic lieutenants—many of them women, and collectively nicknamed "the assassins" by the media—to take on the rebels. The Japanese media may have derisively coined such stunts Koizumi gekijo (Koizumi theater), but the electorate, usually apathetic, was enthralled. By casting the whole election as the new LDP versus the old LDP, Koizumi shrewdly cut Japan's primary opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, out of the picture. The poll results were astonishing. The LDP won 84 new seats for a total of 296 in the 480-seat lower house, the biggest parliamentary majority since 1960.
The vote substantially altered the party composition. Only 17 of the postal rebels (forced to run as either independents or as part of a new party) managed to return to office. Eighty-three of the LDP winners, meanwhile, are first-time Diet members, now routinely referred to in the Japanese press as "Koizumi's Kids." While it would be an overstatement to say the LDP is now Koizumi's machine, its famously fractious factions have been dealt a mortal blow, and it is more aligned behind a single, strong leader than ever before. "We destroyed the old LDP," said a beaming Koizumi as the returns came in, "and the LDP became like a new party."
It was what happened next, however, that explains why Koizumi is such a fascinating, contradictory figure—and why he is TIME's Asian Newsmaker for 2005. Sure, postal reform was quickly passed into law. And Koizumi quickly announced plans to turn the country's eight remaining state-owned public lenders into a single entity, reduce the bureaucracy's control over government funds, and cut back on subsidies to local governments. But it wasn't his reforms—bold in conception though they may be—that captured the imagination. It was his visit, on Oct. 17, to the tree-shrouded Shinto shrine just across the moat from the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo known as Yasukuni Jinja. Built in 1869, the shrine (whose name means, of all things, "Peaceful Nation") commemorates the souls of more than 2.5 million of Japan's war dead. Koizumi defends his visits to the shrine—he has made one each year since taking office—as a personal and religious matter, a way to honor Japan's fallen, and to make a pledge for peace. Others in Asia see the shrine, and Koizumi's visits there, as homages to Japan's warmongering past. And they have reason to.
During Japan's time as a colonial power, the shrine was a focal point of the country's native religion, used by political leaders to help justify national conquests. They proclaimed that the souls of those who sacrificed their lives at war for Japan and its Emperor would live forever, venerated as gods, at Yasukuni. Soldiers, pilots and seamen heading into battle would frequently bid farewell to each other by saying, "See you at Yasukuni." Since 1945, Yasukuni has remained a quiet but potent and enduring symbol for the country's die-hard nationalists. Since 1959, priests at Yasukuni have quietly enshrined more than 1,000 convicted war criminals, not just Class-A criminals such as Hideki Tojo, the wartime Prime Minister, but also hundreds of military men who personally committed atrocities, ordered them to take place, or refrained from stopping them. At the museum next door, memorabilia from kamikaze pilots, the Burma death railway and other examples of Japan's wartime history are displayed in unequivocally celebratory style. An exhibit on the "Nanking Incident" of 1937 does not mention the tens of thousands (and perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Chinese citizens the Japanese military slaughtered there in 1937 and 1938. Instead, it says, "The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace." As a euphemism for atrocity, that summary is hard to beat. And so it is hardly surprising that as Koizumi continues to visit Yasukuni, the protests against him outside Japan—especially in South Korea and China—become more impassioned by the day. Koizumi doesn't seem to care.
It is that self-confidence that defines the man. Few Prime Ministers have so thoroughly dominated Japanese politics. Before Koizumi took office in 2001, the country had churned through 10 Prime Ministers in 12 years. In the last four and a half years, however, Koizumi has sounded a remarkably consistent message that has both kept him popular at home and elevated his—and Japan's—profile abroad. Thanks in large part to the efforts of the government he leads, the economy is on a more solid footing than it has been in years, and the nation is riding a long-overdue wave of optimism. Overseas, Koizumi has led the most serious postwar movement yet to transform Japan from a vassal state of the U.S. into a leading player in global politics, one that might one day have a fully functioning military, a revised constitution that renounces pacifism, and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. In 2005, he cemented his position as one of the most important leaders in the history of postwar Japan, a man whose personal stamp upon his office will—for both better and worse—have a lasting impact long after he steps down next September. On the one hand, his crushing election victory established a mandate for continued economic reform. On the other, his insistence on visiting Yasukuni outraged much of the rest of Asia. Anyone who displays such brio at home and yet produces such anxiety abroad is ready for the history books.