(Yasuo Fukuda is on the right)
Mindy Kotler is director of Asia Policy Point, a Washington research center that provides objective information on East Asia to the policy community.
To be sure, Japan only marginally matters right now. At best, the White House has a half-hearted effort out to keep Tokyo (Kantei, if you are a cool-talking Japan cognoscenti) in the coalition of the willing against terrorism. Did you know that Moldova and Albania have troops still there in Iraq? Proud to say my fellow Ukrainians have long left.
Is it morning in Japan? It certainly is not a happy day for Japan’s conservative nationalists. Ooops wrong morning. Most Japan cognoscenti* believe the imminent appointment of Yasuo Fukuda, 71, as Japan’s next prime minister heralds a return to the practical, noncontroversial, America-friendly LDP, Japan’s long dominant ruling party. Sensible government will now return. I wish I could be so certain, and I wonder if that is so good.
On Sunday, September 9th, at the APEC ministerial in Australia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 52, said he was going to resign if he did not “get his way,” and resign he did three days later on September 12th. Getting “his way” meant persuading the Japanese Diet (parliament) to renew legislation that expires on November 1 to authorize ships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to refuel allied vessels in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations. Mr. Abe, a scion of a famous and powerful political family, was used to getting his way. He had been groomed to become prime minister and taught to hold to higher ideals than the common folk, i.e., the voters. Like a child screaming for Fruit Loops in the supermarket, he believed his statement was a credible act.
Unfortunately, his APEC threat rendered him powerless as it looked like a dare to his opponents and surrender to his allies. The LDP party elders must have blanched after hearing of it and understood immediately that the Abe government was over in fact and form. The party had taken a beating in July elections and opinion polls showed plunging support for the government. Abe and the LDP were tagged of being out of touch with the voters, who were interested in neither international issues nor lectures about their values.
Humiliated albeit responsible, the LDP elders felt that it was time drag the “kid” out of the supermarket, so to speak. Or in words attributed to Sam Rayburn, one of the more famous Speaker’s The of House, of course from Texas: “I told you I was with you until the end. Well, this is the end.”
So, Abe’s stepping down is not much of a surprise, nor too courageous. The young prince was pushed. It would be wrong, however, to attribute it all to upholding the US-Japan Alliance by toadying to US pressure to continue providing free gas to US anti-terrorism coalition ships in the Indian Ocean. It is more face-saving for Abe to resign over some vague principle, rather than to admit sheer unpopularity, a looming money scandal of his own, and an untenable agenda. For the LDP, which saw its support fading like a fake tattoo and parliamentary elections more likely each day, it was a bid to save the Party.
Abe was an experiment. He represented a substantial wing of the LDP and Japan’s greater political class that contends Japan is suffering from a lack of faith in itself, the result mainly of losing the “War.” This powerful group champions a conservative nationalist agenda to undo the “postwar regime.” Sixty-odd years of peace and prosperity are not enough. This peace, they believe, was achieved along with something un-Japanese and soulless. It was defeatist and foreign. Global capitalism and internationalist goals are hollowing out Japanese industry, culture, and family. The remedy is as simple as a return to “tradition.”
Unfortunately, this agenda did nothing to address Japan’s demographic implosion, economic inequality, inadequate social safety net, rural demise, and foreign policy problems resulting from unresolved history issues. Tradition also meant different things to different people. Abe represented a powerful political class that has regressive notions of how to address Japan’s malaise, without any practical contemporary solutions. Their answers focused on a return to Japanese pride, which can be attained through emperor worship, traditional gender roles, and a muscular foreign policy. All goals unwelcome by the Japanese people, not to mention Japan’s neighbors.
Mr. Fukuda, many hope, will cleanse Abe’s conservative agenda and make it more responsive to voter’s concerns. It is highly unlikely that he will eliminate it altogether. Although I currently cannot confirm that Fukuda is a member of the activist, conservative nationalist Japan Conference, he has made his share of traditionalist statements ranging from seeming agreeable to Japan having its own nuclear weapons to questionable views on male prerogative and rape.
Businessman and old political professional Fukuda may not make Tokyo’s “regime change” look any more liberal or democratic than his predecessor Abe. Fukuda’s reported emphasis on an Asia focused foreign policy, however, may be somewhat more responsive to Japanese public opinion than Abe’s America first one. For the Bush Administration, which has held Japan up as its greatest ally ever in its global fight against terror, this may be a cause for worry. If Japan’s foreign policy does contract back to Asia, as some think, Tokyo will likely do this in tandem with a reconsideration of the risks and benefits of a close relationship with the US.
Maybe, just maybe, the June threat made by the Japanese Ambassador to the US Ryozo Kato that Japan would withhold support for the US in its war on terrorism if its interests were not respected had more substance than first assumed. The Ambassador had written members of Congress that passage of a resolution asking Japan to apologize officially for Imperial Japan’s role in maintaining a system of sexual slavery for its military. At the time, this threat seemed petty and unrealistic. Today, it can actually be a legitimate, credible policy to hold off the Americans, just another reason behind it. Now, what is new about that?
— Mindy Kotler
* “They may be just as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.” ~Sam Rayburn.
Note: A number of readers of this may be interested enough to look to other blogs focused on Japanese politics. I suggest the following:
Asia Exile, Observing Japan, Globaltalk 21, Shisaku, and Transpacific Radio
Now be warned, these blogs are written by men who are a bit insecure and show off with a knowledge of archaic English nouns, such as: trope, encomium, plinth, parlous. When this fails they revert to trite German, French, and Latin expressions. They also like to do a lot of log-rolling and quote each other. All this makes these blogs more amusing than most. Asia Exile is by the Times of London correspondent who follows British tradition of liking pictures.