‘Shadow’ leader Fukuda combative but seasoned

by Reiji Yoshida

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News photo News photo
Yasuo Fukuda – and Taro Aso raise their fists Saturday before officially registering for the Liberal
Democratic Party’s presidential election, which is scheduled to be held on Sept. 23.
KYODO PHOTOS

The former chief Cabinet secretary now has the support of the executives in most of the LDP’s nine factions, including the largest one, which is led by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

Fukuda, who quit as chief Cabinet secretary in May 2004 over a scandal involving his failure to pay into the public pension program, has since maintained a low profile and avoided the public spotlight after deferring to run against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in last September’s LDP presidential election.

Fukuda was dubbed the “shadow foreign minister” and “shadow defense agency director general” during his stint with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, because his tight grip on diplomatic matters often exceeded that of the real foreign and defense chiefs at the time.

He also owns the record for longest-serving government spokesman — a position described as the linchpin of the Cabinet — at 1,289 days.

“After serving as chief Cabinet secretary for more than three years, the bureaucrats all used to bring their issues to (Fukuda)” to get his opinion, said a senior official who worked closely with Fukuda at the prime minister’s office.

“His sense of judgment is excellent. It’s well-balanced,” the official said.

Fukuda’s experienced image is probably one of the reasons so many LDP executives have rushed to field him at a time when the LDP is in crisis. The LDP’s historic defeat in the July Upper House election allowed the opposition camp to achieve a majority and the Democratic Party of Japan to become the chamber’s biggest party for the first time.

Fukuda has been often been regarded as antithesis of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the young hawkish conservative who is Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister.

Fukuda, who trumpeted a diplomatic policy of appeasement toward China and South Korea, was regarded as Abe’s most powerful rival in the previous LDP election last year but decided not to enter the race.

Fukuda has been known as a “pro-China” politician who opposed to government ministers’ visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine. He has also proposed that a new nonreligious memorial be built to pray for the war dead.

Fukuda has also been a favorite of older LDP members eager to preserve the party’s long-held seniority tradition, which was leapfrogged by 52-year-old Abe. The LDP’s younger lawmakers view their elders as elements of stagnation because they manage to keep key LDP and government positions occupied.

“(LDP members) may feel a pendulum should swing back” after Abe’s Cabinet failed, said political analyst Atsuo Ito during a TV news show Friday morning.

But some insiders who know both Abe and Fukuda very well have questioned media descriptions of Fukuda as being dovish to contrast him with Abe.

“Fukuda is more of a hardliner. He takes a harder approach than Abe, who takes soft approach (in politics and diplomacy),” said Raizo Matsuno, a retired Diet member and longtime watcher of politics who died last year.

As Matsuno had predicted, Abe took a soft approach toward China when he became prime minister in September last year. He considerably improved the Sino-Japanese relationship by staging a visit to Beijing right after becoming prime minister in September last year.

Fukuda once created an international stir in 2002 when, during a closed meeting with reporters, he said that Japan may need to review its non-nuclear military policy in the future. At a press conference, he was asked to clarify his position as government spokesman and said that Japan would not change its policy.

Fukuda is also known from his chief Cabinet secretary days as being a combative, short-tempered politician who often argued with reporters by using cynical and high-handed rhetoric.

It is not yet known what kind of policy stance Fukuda will take if he becomes prime minister. His comeback was so sudden in fact that he admitted Friday in an interview with NHK that he was unprepared to present his basic economic or diplomatic policies to the country.

“I haven’t been able to discuss policies (with the supporting factions) very much,” Fukuda said.

With only a week to go before the LDP selects its new president Sept. 23, eight of the ruling party’s nine factions had already decided to back Fukuda by Friday night without even discussing policy.