The Unhappy Warrior

Yasuo Fukuda never looked happy during his year as prime minister of Japan. Whenever he appeared on television, he usually had his face fixed in a grim mask. One gets the impression that his decision to resign was a kind of personal liberation.

Of course, Fukuda had a lot to feel grim about. The economy is tanking again, the government is deadlocked because the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) won control of the upper house of parliament and is in a position – not to mention eager – to obstruct and delay.

At the same time, Fukuda, 72, one of the world’s oldest leaders of a major economy, had to manage a large and increasingly unruly super majority of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Diet members, including coalition partners, increasingly anxious about keeping their seats in the impending election. The party bigwigs were openly measuring the prime minister’s residence for a new occupant.

Moreover, the country is moving inexorably towards a general election, where the only possible outcomes are either victory but with a sharply reduced number of seats in the House of Representatives, or lower house of the Diet, or outright defeat for the first time in Japan’s postwar history – not exactly happy prospects.

Of course, the unprecedented situation of a divided Diet would have taxed the abilities of a politician with considerably more skill and cunning than Fukuda displayed. Perhaps he should have asked President George W Bush for advice, Americans deal with such contingencies all the time. The trouble is that Fukuda acted as if he had been unfairly dealt a bad hand of cards and that a divided parliament was somehow against the natural order of things rather than being the normal workings of a democracy with a bicameral legislature.

This could be seen in the way he handled the appointment of a new head of the Bank of Japan, which required ratification by both houses. When his first choice was rejected by the upper house for being a high Ministry of Finance official, he turned around and appointed another — with the same results. Then he complained about it. His resignation was of a piece. The abrupt announcement at his official residence late Monday evening was rambling and a little self-pitying.

“The opposition caused a lot of trouble for me in a divided Diet,” Fukuda told the news conference. “Piles of problems such as political funds, pension records, Hepatitis C and defense ministry scandals emerged one after another. I was swamped trying to resolve such issues.”

The most common comment about his resignation, from officials as well as the man-on-the-street, was “irresponsible”.

So the LDP is now preparing to choose a new prime minister, who will be, amazingly enough, the fourth Japanese prime minister since the last general election was held four years ago under ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi (remember him?).

Fukuda’s obvious successor, of course, is Taro Aso, who ran against him for the post a year ago and lost. Ever since, he has been the unofficial prime minister-in-waiting. When in August Fukuda reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to boost his dismal approval ratings, he named Aso secretary-general of the LDP, the number-two party post.

Aso is another blueblood, the grandson of former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida. He is also related to the Imperial family, as his sister married prince Tomohiko, a cousin of Emperor Akihito. (If elected he would be the third Japanese premier in a row who is the descendent of a former premier). His family owns extensive mining interests in Kyushu.

But Aso has a common touch. He is a devotee of Japanese cartoon books, known as manga, and Japanese anime, and is happy to make what some might consider a low-brow interest known to the public. His nickname is Rozen Aso, after a manga character.

This and a reputation for blunt speech make him probably the most popular LDP politician in Japan. It is little wonder that many of the wheelers and dealers of the LDP have been quietly pushing his candidacy to the forefront in hopes of having a leader with a little more charisma to head the party in the next election.

That is not to say that he will want the job. As of this writing (less than 24 hours after Fukuda’s announcement) he had not yet officially announced his candidacy. Aso obviously believes in his star, and it is a question whether he wants to hitch it to a moribund party and go down in history as the first LDP prime minister to lose a general election.

The rest of Asia will undoubtedly look on the prospect of an Aso administration with some trepidation. They remember him as foreign minister under Koizumi, when relations between Japan and China hit a nadir over the premier’s official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. Aso trumped that by loudly suggesting that the emperor himself should pay his respects to the shrine, which is dedicated to the soldiers and sailors who lost their lives in Japan’s foreign wars but also includes names of Class-A war criminals. Emperor Hirohito stopped making visits after they were enshrined in 1978.

But Aso has been re-inventing himself. After his defeat by Fukuda a year ago, he declined offers of cabinet posts and began an extensive tour of Japan. Once defined as a foreign policy hawk, he immersed himself in domestic issues, such as care for the elderly and the plight of economically depressed areas of Japan.

One can say that he has fully assimilated the mistakes of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe, whom he also served as foreign minister, in overemphasizing nationalistic/conservative issues, such as changing the constitution, over bread and butter issues. That emphasis led to the opposition’s devastating win in the upper house election and continuing expectation that the DJP may win in a general election.

The first order of business for Fukuda’s successor will be an extraordinary session of the Diet beginning in mid-September (assuming it isn’t postponed because of the resignation). The Diet is being called to deal with Japan’s rapidly deteriorating economy and renew once again the authorization for Japan’s navy to conduct refueling operations in the Indian Ocean which supply coalition troops prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.

One can say confidently that whatever Aso or anyone else wants, the controversial refueling operation is soon to be history. The legal authorization expires in January, and there is not enough time left to pass a reauthorization bill, assuming that the opposition uses its majority in the upper house to delay things.

After the special Diet session, Japan could be embroiled in a general election, one held as soon as late December. The outcome of that election will make it almost certain that no further authorization for the refueling operations will be approved for a long time.