LDP rivals offer more reform or regression

Short stint may await whoever is next prime minister

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — In the short term, the next prime minister will either continue internationally sought fiscal and economic reforms or return to the traditional pork-barrel projects and failed economic policies of the past, forge closer military ties with the United States or maintain the status quo.

With two candidates who once lived in the Middle East, Japan’s engagement in that part of the world might change.

But with a Lower House election likely to come sooner rather than later, whoever assumes the prime minister’s post after winning the Liberal Democratic Party presidency will probably leading Japan for days or weeks, rather than months or years. That’s the general view from abroad as an, as yet undeclared, general election looms.

The five who filed their candidacies for the LDP leadership race Wednesday are all internationally experienced, speak English and are often brash and outspoken about Japan’s role in the world. Taro Aso The 67-year-old LDP secretary general is known abroad for his prestigious family ties (he is the grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida) and his conservative foreign policy views.

But it’s Aso’s tendency to make contentious statements that have drawn international headlines these past few years — a tendency that once led to a rebuke by The New York Times.

Over the past seven years, Aso has sometimes seemed to be more interested in revising history than in governing.

He angered both South and North Korea when he praised Japan’s rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, saying Japan did many good things. When foreign minister in 2006, he upset China with a suggestion that the Emperor should visit Yasukuni Shrine.

During this time, it also came to light that a family business during World War II, Aso Mining, used thousands of Korean, Chinese, Australian, British and Dutch prisoners of war as slave laborers.

Aso is also seen as the candidate most likely to put the brakes on the fiscal and economic reforms aggressively pursued by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that won praise from many Western economists.

Aso’s support for government spending to prop up the economy has raised concern among foreign economists and financial analysts that Japan is returning to past policies that emphasized public works spending over structural reform and pursuit of investment, especially direct foreign investment.

Among “manga” (comic) fans worldwide, Aso is known as the “manga minister” for his passionate support of the genre.

As foreign minister, he played a key role in establishing a national manga award for up-and-coming foreign manga artists, and has advocated “manga diplomacy” as a way to build bridges between Japan and the outside world. Yuriko Koike The 56-year-old former environment and defense minister is earning international headlines as Japan’s first woman to stand for the LDP presidency. A speaker of Arabic and graduate of Cairo University, Koike was a TV anchorwoman before entering politics.

As environment minister under Koizumi, she traveled abroad to promote the Kyoto Protocol and promoted the Cool Biz casual dress campaign.

As minister in charge of Okinawa affairs, she dealt with the U.S. military and the Pentagon over the relocation of the Futenma air base. She was appointed national security adviser under Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, and was dubbed “Japan’s Condoleezza Rice.”

As Japan’s first female defense minister, a position she assumed under Abe in summer 2007, she was a staunch supporter of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and even met with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Koike is well-known in the Middle East, and well-versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is especially familiar with Libya, where her father, who was once involved in the oil business, reportedly had close contacts with Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Koike is aligned with the more nationalistic elements of the LDP. A recent U.S. media report compared Koike, in style and rhetoric, not experience, to Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

She also likes to joke. Last year, just before resigning as defense minister, Koike told policy experts in Washington to call her “Madame Sushi.” Japanese critics dubbed her “Madame Kaiten (conveyor belt) Sushi” — someone who goes around and around until picked up — in reference to her record of switching political parties, as well as districts and political sponsors. She was once a protege of Ichiro Ozawa, now leader of the Democratic Party of Japan. Kaoru Yosano When he was young, the 70-year-old economic and fiscal policy minister lived in Cairo, as well as Spain and England. Well-versed in economic policies, he is widely known among international bankers and business leaders due to his experience as trade minister and economic and fiscal policy minister.

Yosano is seen abroad as a strong advocate of economic and fiscal reforms and is one of the few politicians who publicly supports a consumption tax hike.

The international nuclear power industry sees Yosano, who joined Japan’s fledging nuclear power industry in the 1950s before becoming a politician, as a particularly strong ally.

Yosano has won praise from international bankers for his declaration that Japan needs to balance its budget by 2011. His views on foreign policy issues are less clear, but he is seen by Japan experts as likely to be similar to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in terms of relations with the U.S. and East Asia. Shigeru Ishiba Among the five candidates, the 51-year-old former defense minister is perhaps the most vocal supporter of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and favors closer bilateral military cooperation.

While an expert on military affairs, Ishiba is not an armchair hawk. Traveling through Kurdish refugee camps following the Gulf War in 1991, he was shocked by the misery he witnessed.

In 1992, he was part of a group of Diet members who visited Pyongyang to celebrate the 80th birthday of then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, but became a strong critic of the North Korean government afterward. Nobuteru Ishihara The 51-year-old former chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, once described by Time magazine as “young and hard-charging,” is less known abroad than his famous father, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

Ishihara studied briefly at Elmira College in New York while at Keio University, but as a politician has little international experience.

Japan experts abroad see Ishihara as part of the new wave of younger, more nationalistic and conservative politicians who favor Western-style economic and fiscal reforms.

As a staunch supporter of Koizumi’s reform drive, Ishihara served as minister in charge of administrative reforms and later as transport minister during Koizumi’s tenure.