Okada to prioritize ties with Asian neighbors

by Jun Hongo

To envision how Katsuya Okada will approach his new job as foreign minister, one need look no further than his grilling of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during budget deliberations at the Diet on June 2, 2005.

For the duration of the standoff, Okada, who was then president of the Democratic Party of Japan, put Koizumi through the ringer for visiting contentious Yasukuni Shrine.

“I have serious concern that this issue will influence ties between Japan and China, and if ties between Japan and China are ruined, it could affect the rest of Asia,” Okada told Koizumi.

Touching on the enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals at the Shinto shrine, Okada attacked the prime minister’s pilgrimage as damaging Japan’s shot at becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and sabotaging its attempts to collaborate with its neighbors in resolving tensions with North Korea.

In his 2008 book “Seiken Koutai” (roughly translated as “Change of Regime”), Okada wrote that picking up the pieces from Koizumi’s diplomatic maneuvers will be one of the first tasks the DPJ administration will address.

Japan has turned a blind eye toward Washington’s unilateralism while making light of its Asian neighbors, ultimately narrowing Tokyo’s overall diplomatic capabilities, he wrote.

Analysts say such views epitomize how the DPJ will handle foreign affairs, including shifting diplomacy toward forming stronger ties with Asia while maintaining its basic alliance with the United States, Japan’s only military ally.

“The DPJ will likely take a different approach than the Liberal Democratic Party on its relations with Asia, and Okada is one figure who is well aware that Tokyo’s ties with its neighbors are damaged,” said Aiko Utsumi, a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The expert on Japan’s postwar ties with Asia said the launch of the DPJ administration is a chance for Tokyo to break with the bureaucrat-oriented diplomacy that prevailed under the LDP.

“I hope Okada has the potential to lead and correct what has been done incorrectly, to resolve any antagonism with South Korea or China,” Utsumi added.

While showing strong interest in building a partnership with Asia, what remains relatively unknown is that Okada also enjoys close ties with U.S. politicians and was heavily influenced by his experience at Harvard in the 1980s.

Compared with the Social Democratic Party, one of its two coalition partners, the DPJ and Okada are considered more pro-U.S., and many experts hope Okada and his party will handle issues related to Japan-U.S. military alliance more realistically than they did during the campaign for the general election.

As a bureaucrat in the trade ministry, Okada spent a year at Harvard and was taught by some of the brightest American minds, including Ezra Vogel (author of “Japan as Number One”), economist Jeffery Sachs and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

The newly appointed foreign minister said he visits the U.S. at least once a year to share opinions with government officials and local think tanks. At a recent news conference, Okada called Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell “an old friend” and revealed the two have frequently exchanged opinions over the years.

His experience living in the U.S. also persuaded Okada to undergo a career change. In “Seiken Koutai,” Okada says a speech by President Ronald Reagan after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger deeply moved him and focused his interest in politics.

“President Reagan made a sincere four-minute speech. He mourned the victims from his heart, but firmly assured that the space programs will continue,” Okada wrote.

“In America, I came to understand the role an administration and a politician can play, and the huge possibility that a government can embody.”

With his expertise in policy and rich background, many say Okada’s success as foreign minister could depend on how flexible he is on the job, particularly in handling issues related to Japan’s military alliance with the United States.

The SDP has adamantly called for strictly maintaining war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution and scaling down U.S. forces in Japan.

Analysts say clashes over contentious issues in the coalition are a probability.

Okada, known as a hard worker who likes to stick to his principles, is often dubbed “RoboCop” by the media for his inflexibility. It was once rumored he gets home by 9 p.m. every day to study policies and improve his logic, while others have criticized him as too serious in comparison with Koizumi, whose use of catchy words and theatrics gave birth to “one-phrase politics” in Japan.

Okada takes no offense at being called RoboCop and has already demonstrated his audacity in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador John Roos in which he actively brought up the DPJ’s pitch for withdrawing the Maritime Self-Defense Force from its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

“I have often been criticized for being too serious and stubborn,” but such characteristics should not be cause for criticism, especially in the world of politics, he wrote in his book.

“As a true RoboCop, I have tried to make logical arguments against any objections, never being vague and always seeking a clear conclusion,” he wrote.

In an bid to unite in time for Wednesday’s special Diet session, the three parties turned a blind eye to their differences on diplomacy and security.

Okada said he believes the three parties reached a satisfactory accord, but the final agreement did not go into specifics, including on the issues of the refueling mission and the antipiracy patrols off Somalia.

The SDP may try to revise those policies, at which point Okada will have to start juggling the coalition, the DPJ’s policies and his beliefs.