09/27/2007, 00.00
JAPAN
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Winds of change sweep Tokyo as Fukuda takes over

by Pino Cazzaniga
The land of the Rising Sun goes from a prime minister strongly committed to restoring the country’s lost pride to one who is well-known for his aversion to war and his great abilities as a diplomat and mediator.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The start is promising. A Yomiuri Shimbun survey shows a 58 per cent approval rate for the new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, who has been office for just two days. In him voters have found a sense of stability that is different from that of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. His decision to extend the naval mission supplying fuel and providing logistical support to US troops in Afghanistan was well received.

Yasuo Fukuda’s appointment a year to the day after his predecessor’s seems to confirm what Tom Plate, analyst for the The Strait Times, said, namely that Japan can be admired for its legendary technical ability, its exemplary education system, its impressive progress in electronics, but not for its political system. For Plate, group consensus tends to undermine government stability.

This is may very well be true, but not entirely. Until ten years Japan had prime ministers chosen by consensus from within the leadership of the Liberal democratic party (LDP), a party leadership around which various factions gravitated. At that time government could change but the political line would remain the same.

Since the start of the 21st century party-based consensus politics has given way to more public opinion-centred politics. Consensus led to the rapid rise of the eccentric Jun'ichirō Koizumi and explains his longevity in office; a dissenting public opinion led to the equally rapid rise of Shinzo Abe but also to his fall.

Koizumi ran on a platform that included a specific programme of structural reforms and a willingness to realise them even if it destroyed (his) party. And he did it. Abe proposed a nationalist-oriented ‘beautiful Japan’ programme and lost.

The new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, is held in high esteem by friends and adversaries alike, not someone flashy but one that says what he means and means what he says.

“Japan's leadership will shift from a youthful politician (53) who tends to be driven by ideology to a pragmatic and stable veteran (71) known for his coordination skills,” wrote the Asahi Shimbun editorial page.

As a man and a politician Fukuda is the antithesis of Abe. Although the latter was born after World War Two, he was raised in family culturally conditioned by pre-war nationalism.

His main political ambition was to restore Japan’s national pride which it lost with the military defeat of 1945. His goal was to lead the country away from the post-war dispensation.

Some of his successes, like the referendum law on constitutional reform and his new education law, must be seen in this light.

Fukuda is cut from a different cloth. He was born in Tokyo in 1936 when his father, Takeo, was an official at the Finance Ministry. During the war he and his brothers were moved to Gunma Prefecture because of US bombing raids.

This experience probably explains his aversion for war and his preference for political dialogue. “War,” he is wont of saying, “is the result of failed policies.”

On several occasions, the newly-appointed prime minister has opposed moves within the LDP to change the 1947 anti-war constitution.

Fukuda is the first prime minister son of a prime minister. His father Takeo held the top job from 1976 to 1978.

After university he worked as a regular “salary man” for decades, eventually becoming his father’s personal secretary.

He was elected to parliament for the first time at the age of 53 and has always worked behind the scenes, showing remarkable communications skills

For those who have worked with him diplomacy is his great strength and the basis of his many successes.  In fact he has been the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary (the second highest post after prime minister) in Japanese history, serving for 1,289 days.

His ability to listen is probably the reason why most LDP MPs got behind him when it came to pick a new party president.

In foreign policy he favours closer relations with Japan’s neighbours South Korea and China whilst not underestimating its traditional ties with the United States.

It must also be said that Shinzo Abe has already set the stage for Japan’s greater involvement in East Asia with his successful visits to Beijing and Seoul early on in his mandate.

It is very likely that Fukuda’s government won’t last beyond next spring. Should that happen, it won’t be because of the leader’s shortcomings, but rather because of the strength of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has become the main party in the upper house, the House of Councillors. Since the July 29 elections, the DPJ has been calling for early elections to the lower house, betting that it can gain power and achieve a change of government.

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