PJ Media

Will Fukuda Fumble?

PJM Tokyo, Saturday 1 Oct 2007:

In the week since he was elected President of the LDP, Yasuo Fukuda has been a busy man. At least he’s been drawing a lot of ink. What he’s been busy doing can be a bit harder to see.

On Tuesday, he was officially elected Prime Minister of Japan by the Diet, via a constitutional provision that meant his election, while merely a rubber stamp, was only as dramatic as his election to the post of party president. (Under the Japanese constitution the lower house of the Diet selects the Prime Minister. After former Prime Minister Abe’s resignation in September 2007, Fukuda announced he would run for the post of LDP party president, which controlled the lower house of the Diet; hence his election to head the party also made Fukuda Prime Minister of Japan.)

The upper house of the Diet (House of Councillors), controlled by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) since the July 29th election, declared their own party leader, Ichiro Ozawa, Prime Minister. But for Ozawa, who saw his public popularity rise against then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to the July elections, it was merely a political gesture. Ozawa’s selection by the upper house (The House of Councillors) was trumped after the lower house (House of Representatives), controlled by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose Fukuda. Yasuo Fukuda was named Prime Minister. No surprises there.

Then came the exciting part: the naming of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s first Cabinet. This prospect lit up the blogosphere and animated debates over a bit too much beer or nihonshu in bars and izakaya throughout the 23 wards of Tokyo and beyond.

The question was did Fukuda’s cabinet portend? Would it show Fukuda as unifier of the LDP? That meant gray heads, powerful, connected gray heads, gray heads at the head of powerful LDP factions filling the Cabinet. Or would it signify Fukuda the buster of bureaucracy, who was going to save Japan from the world-beating financial Sword of Damocles dangling over its head? That meant. . . well, some mixture of gray and black heads, perhaps. The suspense was exciting.

But all the excitement was below the surface. In Japan, politics is all about behind the scenes maneuvering, so the public knew in advance more or less who would be in the Cabinet. The big questions were who would get which portfolio; who would be among the few who would leave the cabinet, which new faces would be brought in, and what would become of Fukuda’s rival Taro Aso, who had lost, on Sunday, in his third attempt at the LDP presidency.

I, for one, wanted to like Fukuda. At least, I wanted to like him. After the ineffective Abe, who insisted on a vague, possibly damaging plan to build a “Beautiful Country, Japan” (a concept which he never clearly explained) to the exclusion of more pressing matters, such as problems with the pension fund or the growing disparity between rich and poor (a relatively new phenomenon for post-War Japan), Fukuda seemed both reasonable and in control, like a friendly grandfather – a sharp contrast to many senior LDP members, who exude an aura of smarm and make one feel slimy for having seen them.

Wanting to like Fukuda, I saw reason for hope in his promise to cut back unnecessary public works, which would save the small part of Japan that hasn’t been paved or covered in Japanese cedar. (Spend a couple of Springs in Tokyo and you’ll understand why Tokyoites cheered when Governor Shintaro Ishihara took an axe to a cedar in a public ceremony.) But just as I was at first confident that Fukuda would lose the LDP presidential election, only to change my mind, I have now been brought around to the view that there is little reason to hope for much from the Fukuda administration.

Fukuda is a caretaker; not the unifier some hoped he would become for the LDP. He has one main job: to get the LDP ready for a general election which could be as early as next Spring. To make sure everything goes smoothly, Fukuda has taken steps that make it appear he has learned from Abe’s mistakes and is going to take a pragmatic, rather than a grand ideological approach.

On top of that, just as American Presidential candidates think about where their running mates are from in order to maximize regional support, Fukuda had to think about appeasing factions in the LDP. As a result, Fukuda brought the heads of just about every LDP faction into the Cabinet or into leadership positions in the party. That meant expanding the list of powerbrokers. The leaders of the LDP have long been divided into the sanyaku (three roles.) Under previous party presidents the roles were as follows: the Secretary General, who takes care of the money; the General Council Chairman, who coordinates the activities of the party; and the Policy Research Council Chairman, who is in charge of writing bills. To keep faction heads happy, Fukuda has elevated a previously lower post, that of Election Strategy Director, to a level on par with the sanyaku (thus creating an 11 teams in the Big Ten kind of situation), and filled the post with Makoto Koga, who looks like he’s been dead for a few years and has the character to match.

Koga, head of a powerful faction that had been out in the cold for years due to his opposition to some of the policies of Abe and his famous predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, thought he was all set to make his return to the fore as Policy Research Council Chairman. When he was not offered the position, he unthinkably said he was surprised to see the job go to someone else, seeing as he was the best man for the job. This statement, in a country where self-effacement is the norm in daily discourse was extraordinary. (‘I humbly accept honorable tea, invariably among the best I’ve ever tasted, from you and your honorable wife in your splendid house, but humbly, ashamedly offer you unacceptable swill passing as tea made by the wench who runs my filthy house and apologize when you tell me it’s among the best tea you’ve ever had.’ Neither of us means it, and we both know it, that’s just how people talk in polite company.) Soon afterwards, Fukuda was appointed first chairman of the party’s election committee.

The Cabinet? The Cabinet has two new members. Out of 17. And one of those is the Defense Minister. Poor Robert Gates. The rapid changes may mean the American Department of Defense doesn’t even know with whom they’re corresponding anymore and they expressed frustration when Yuriko Koike resigned less than two months after taking over the position when Fumio Kyuma, Japan’s first Defense Minister stepped down amid scandal over his saying “shouganai ” (“it couldn’t be helped”) in regards to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (his hometown.) So there’s yet another new Defense Minister in a Ministry that has only existed since January even as the the bill authorizing Japan’s assistance to the US in the Indian Ocean approaches its expiration date. Shouganai.

For Robert Gates’ information, the new Japanese Defense Minister’s name is Shigeru Ishiba. As we say here, gambatte kudasai! (“Do your best!”) As for the other 15, while they’ve been shifted around, the meaning is clear: this is an administration intent on stability. No surprises, just clean up the party’s image, make it to the regular Diet session in the Spring, maybe find some resolution to that anti-terrorism bill conundrum, show the public you take the looming pension crisis seriously, and put the LDP in a good position for a general election that, hopefully, Prime Minister Fukuda can call on his own terms.

If nothing else, though, Fukuda’s approval ratings are in the mid-fifties in every poll (ranging from 53% to 59% – polls are done by newspapers; liberal ones tend to show lower approval ratings for the PM, conservative ones higher.) That’s an approval rating Abe would have dreamed about, but is lower than the 70% Abe himself started off with. Could mean the public has more realistic expectations of Fukuda. Could mean he just doesn’t have as far to fall.

Fukuda’s administration faces one of its first foreign policy tests this weekend: how to respond to footage of a Japanese photojournalist being shot point-blank in cold blood by a Burmese soldier, an incident which has dominated the news. Japan has trade relations with Burma (or Myanmar, depending on your politics), and George Bush said any state dealing with the Burmese junta would be a pariah.

At the same time that his State and Defense Departments are desperate to keep Japan on board in support of their mission in Afghanistan. D’oh!

Garrett DeOrio runs Trans-Pacific Radio, a podcast channel based in Tokyo which provides regular review and analysis of Japanese and East Asian news and politics.