- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

TOKYOJapan’s new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, who took power Tuesday, is vowing to restore public trust in the government, revitalize the teetering Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and continue an anti-terror naval mission.

However, Mr. Fukuda must face an empowered opposition, which now controls the upper house. The LDP suffered a crushing defeat in late July under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who abruptly stepped down for a health reason. He was hospitalized with exhaustion and stress-related stomach ailments.

Mr. Abe pressed ahead with a nationalist agenda while the public was more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as pensions and jobs. Mr. Fukuda wants to narrow the widening gaps between major cities and provinces and to help those who feel left out with market reforms and budget tightening.

Unlike Mr. Abe, who rose to power by taking a strong stance against North Korea, Mr. Fukuda seeks closer ties with other Asian countries and is open to negotiation with North Korea, while maintaining a pro-U.S. stance.

Mr. Fukuda was first elected a lower house member in 1990 after working for an oil company and serving as a secretary for his father, Takeo, who was prime minister in the late 1970s. He served as chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Yoshiro Mori, but he has never headed a ministry.

Mr. Fukuda, who had been endorsed by eight of the party’s nine faction leaders to become prime minister, appointed current and former faction leaders to two minister posts and all the four LDP top executive posts. Some critics say such practices indicate a return to factional politics, old ways of doing business in the party.

“Not at all,” said Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics and policy-making at the University of California at San Diego. “Today, as a result of the weakening and changes in factions after the 1994 electoral reform, things are very different. Some members of the factions supporting Fukuda are supporting [the party’s Secretary General Taro] Aso. Faction leaders can’t dictate who they should support.”

Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, said Mr. Fukuda is more politically savvy than he looks.

“Though Mr. Fukuda usually shows no expression, he carefully listens,” said Mr. Kawakami, who graduated from Azabu High in Tokyo, the same alma mater as Mr. Fukuda’s. Mr. Fukuda used to be called “Ninja Hattori-kun,” a popular Japanese animation character, he said.

“I believe he will listen to the main opposition Democratic Party Japan (DPJ) and work with them without seeming to do so, just like a ninja,” said Mr. Kawakami. “Mr. Fukuda will try to have fewer differing opinions from the DPJ so that the public could wonder why the DPJ needs to take the reins of government.”

Meanwhile, Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the DPJ, has called for an early election.

“The ruling coalition’s policies have created inequalities in Japanese society,” Mr. Ozawa told reporters. “This government must be dissolved as soon as possible.”

Analysts and LDP members said Mr. Fukuda was chosen because he looked “more reliable and experienced” especially after the disastrous administration of Mr. Abe, the youngest leader in the postwar era. Mr. Abe was beset with a string of scandals and gaffes by his ministers. And one of the most damaging episodes was his slow response to the government’s mishandling of tens of millions of pension records.

But once the LDP presidential race started two weeks ago, Mr. Abe’s negative episodes were downplayed. Instead, the media’s massive coverage was devoted to Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Aso, who were running the race, in which the public could not vote.

“All the LDP members rushed to hide the seamy side of the party with the help of the major media,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. “The media hoopla over the LDP presidential race is like a short-lived glow before the candle burns out. Now the LDP cannot survive without the help of coalition partner New Komeito and the major media.”

One of Mr. Fukuda’s daunting challenges is to persuade an increasingly assertive opposition to support the extension of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces’ (MSDF) logistical and refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to help U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, slated to expire on Nov. 1.

In a meeting with Mr. Abe during an Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney earlier this month, President Bush described Japan’s role as “absolutely essential” and called for the renewal of anti-terrorism law passed in 2001, which allowed the mission.

Critics say, however, the mission violates Japan’s war-renouncing constitution that the nation cannot take part in collective self-defense.

Mr. Ozawa has repeatedly vowed to block any move to renew the mission, which is not under U.N. auspices, he said.

Mr. Fukuda, however, said he would keep Japan’s role alive and called the mission “beneficial to the international community” in his first press conference Tuesday. He added he would consult with the opposition and hinted he would submit a new bill.

As Mr. Abe’s sudden resignation created political vacuum, it would be impossible to renew the operations before the expiration date, said analysts.

The MSDF “may have to be withdrawn from its mission after November 1,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and former lieutenant general with the Self-Defense Forces. “The government should submit new legislation to continue the mission. It is Japan’s important contribution to the international community.”

But critics said since the government was reluctant to disclose information about the operations, the public could not even start discussion.

The problem is the Japanese government had been so secretive about the operation, Motoaki Kamiura, a Tokyo-based military analyst, told Video News Networks Inc. “What the government calls ‘military secrets’ means inconvenient information to them.”

The U.S. has lobbied hard for Japan to extend the mission and the reason lies in Pakistan, which received oil from MSDF, Mr. Kamiura told the Video News, the Japanese Internet television. “If Pakistani navy accepted fuel from the U.S., that could stir anti-American sentiments in Pakistan and the government of President [Pervez] Musharraf could not last.”

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