Outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was considered a rising star among conservatives, representing a new hawkish generation advocating revision of the pacifist Constitution and guilt-free patriotism so Japan could play a more active role on the international stage.
That is as much due to timing as any personal convictions Fukuda may hold. Following the setback to Abe’s LDP in the July election, the LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition lost its majority in the upper chamber, making it more difficult to drastically alter the Constitution or change long-standing basic defense policy.
“The current situation is not good for such moves. I wonder if I should talk about things that won’t be realized,” Fukuda said in an interview with Kyodo News last week.
Barring other political upsets, the political climate will remain unfavorable to the ultraconservative wing of the LDP for some time to come.
“The situation in the Upper House won’t change for another six years,” Toshikawa said.
Only half of the chamber’s 242 seats are contested every three years, and experts doubt the ruling coalition will be able to retake control in the next contest.
Fukuda, a 71-year-old lawmaker from Gunma Prefecture, was considered Abe’s most powerful rival in the LDP presidential election last year.
He is known for his conciliatory stance toward China and South Korea and opposes visits by key ministers to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
“I think the Sino-Japanese relationship will further improve. He has strong personal connections with China,” said Tomohito Shinoda, a professor at the International University of Japan and an expert on diplomacy.
But Shinoda and other observers said it would be an oversimplification to simply label Fukuda a pacifist.
Fukuda created an international stir in 2002 when, during a closed meeting with reporters, he said Japan might need to review its nonnuclear military stance — a centerpiece of the country’s foreign policy.
Fukuda also strongly pushed for passage of two controversial bills greatly expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces. One was a set of wartime contingency laws granting the military extraordinary power in the event of a national emergency, while the other permitted the dispatch of Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers to the Indian Ocean to provide logistic support for antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan. Both bills were passed.
“I would feel uncomfortable calling Fukuda a dove. Rather, he is a realist,” Shinoda said.
Fukuda, despite being the eldest son of late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, was long a political outsider, having worked at a major petroleum company for 17 years. It was not until 1990, at age 53, that he first ran for a Lower House seat.
According to Shinoda, Fukuda’s long career in business honed his problem-solving skills.
Also, while working as chief Cabinet secretary for two prime ministers from December 2000 to May 2004, Fukuda was known for exerting tight control over ministry bureaucrats. That role was key in Koizumi’s bid to empower the office of prime minister.
Observers agree that Fukuda will not drastically alter Japan’s official approach to diplomatic policy, which is centered on the Japan-U.S. alliance and ties with Asian neighbors.
One clear difference with Abe may be in diplomacy toward North Korea, observers said.
Abe, who won popularity among voters thanks to his tough stance against North Korea, refused to give any economic assistance without significant progress on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s.
But Fukuda, while chief Cabinet secretary, put the emphasis more on dialogue with North Korea rather than pressure, trying to woo Pyongyang by hinting at the possibility of extending economic assistance.
Abe, as deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Koizumi, often clashed with Fukuda on this topic. But for now, the pendulum appears to have swung back in Fukuda’s favor.
“Fukuda will probably go back to his original diplomatic policy. He may indicate economic assistance is possible,” Shinoda said.
Analyst Toshikawa echoed that view. “He’ll send a message that (Japan) wants to resume negotiations on normalization of the bilateral relationship,” he said.
But Fukuda’s first political challenge will be the issue of whether to extend Japan’s controversial MSDF mission in the Indian Ocean, in which Japan has refueled warships from the United States and other coalition forces in support of their operations in Afghanistan.
Fukuda will likely face tough resistance from the opposition bloc led by the Democratic Party of Japan, which now controls a majority in the Upper House and has promised to vote down any government-sponsored bill to continue the mission.
Toshikawa said that although most LDP members who voted for Abe in the LDP election last year rushed to support Fukuda this time around, his power base within the LDP is surprisingly weak.
“Everyone has just jumped on the winning bandwagon. That’s it,” Toshikawa said. “Fukuda’s leadership is probably stronger than that of Abe. But we need to keep watching to see if he can unite the party.”