Ichiro Fujisaki’s four-year stint as Japan’s ambassador to the U.S. saw turbulent events — the Great East Japan Earthquake, shifting political power in Nagata-cho and President Barack Obama’s re-election — to name but a few.
And now, Fujisaki, whose posting ended in November, finds himself back in Tokyo at a time when the country is about to hold a general election that could see the Liberal Democratic Party return to office, threatening further political turmoil.
“It doesn’t matter whether it will be one-party rule or a coalition government. What is important is to have a stable government that can make policy decisions,” Fujisaki, 65, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“What Japan really needs to do is stabilize its national politics and boost the economy, so the United States, for example, can be confident the country is returning to (its role as) a strong and reliable ally,” he said.
Recalling the time immediately after the Democratic Party of Japan took power following the August 2009 Lower House poll, he admitted the uncharted waters — after 50 years of nearly uninterrupted LDP rule — complicated his job.
After taking office, the DPJ swiftly declared that politicians, not bureaucrats, would become the government’s real decision-makers, in a radical policy departure from LDP administrations.
“It is natural to conduct policy reviews when the government changes. But some (DPJ) politicians tried to completely remove bureaucrats from decision-making bodies,” said Fujisaki, whose ancestry includes Hirobumi Ito, the first prime minister in the Meiji Era.
“We must combine everyone’s power. We can’t afford to alienate certain people in governing the country.”
Adding to the confusion was a statement by the DPJ’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, that U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma could be moved outside of Okinawa, breaking a long-standing accord with Washington to build a replacement facility in the prefecture.
“The period of turbulence lasted less than a year, but it is true that the (DPJ) government mislead the people of Okinawa by stating that the Futenma base could be moved outside their prefecture,” Fujisaki said.
“I think the existence of U.S. bases in Japan serves as a deterrent (to aggression by neighboring countries), but we must also realize the fact that they are also creating burdens on Okinawa.”
The key thing, Fujisaki said, is to move forward on the deal Tokyo and Washington reached in April to move about 9,000 U.S. Marines out of Okinawa — before Futenma is moved farther north on Okinawa Island — as part of the U.S. forces realignment.
“So it is not the case (anymore) that unless the Futenma issue is resolved, other matters won’t move forward,” he said. “As we reduce the number of marines and implement the return of (land on which) U.S. bases (have been built to Japan’s jurisdiction), we will continue to push the Futenma facility’s relocation forward.”
The March 2011 quake-tsunami disasters and the nuclear crisis they triggered proved a huge challenge for Fujisaki, who as Japan’s most senior envoy in Washington acted as a liaison between the U.S. and Japanese governments 24 hours a day.
He recalled that his team of some 100 officials from different ministries held meetings at least five times a day to deal with the aftermath and frequently met with officials from the White House, the U.S. State, Defense and Energy departments, and the Food and Drug Administration to convey the situation in the disaster-hit Tohoku region and the assistance Japan required.
Fujisaki was impressed with the response of the FDA, which handled the crisis in a scientific manner and did not try to escalate people’s concerns unnecessarily.
Another of his tasks during that time involved appearing on U.S. television programs to explain the difficulties Japan faced to the American public. He also approached various U.S. organizations to convey Japan’s appreciation for their help.
But it was not only Japanese officials who worked hard in Washington, Fujisaki pointed out, as the State Department quickly set up a team to deal with the natural and nuclear crises.
“There were always about 10 officials who stayed overnight (at the State Department), despite the fact that the disasters had occurred in a foreign country — not theirs,” he said.
Obama’s advisors also held daily video conferences with top-level atomic energy experts across the United States to discuss the three core meltdowns suffered by the Fukushima No. 1 power plant and report back to the president, Fujisaki said.
After pop superstar Lady Gaga started collecting substantial donations for victims of the March 11 catastrophe through rubber bracelets bearing messages such as “We pray for Japan,” Fujisaki produced his own for various occasions while in Washington, including some with the phrase “Arigato from Japan” to show gratitude for the U.S. support.
“Not only U.S. rescue teams engaged in disaster areas but many Americans across the country worked very hard based on Washington’s encouragement,” said Fujisaki, who wore a rubber bracelet during the interview reading “We love Fujisaki,” a farewell gift from a deputy secretary of state before he returned home in November.
Asked about Obama’s second term in office, he said Washington is likely to focus on three principal issues: how to deal with China’s new leaders, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the stalled Middle East peace process.
On the recent diplomatic tensions in East Asia, Fujisaki pointed to China’s leadership transition in November and South Korea’s upcoming presidential poll as factors that should provide opportunities for Tokyo to mend its frayed relations with Beijing and Seoul over the Senkaku and Takeshima isle disputes, especially as a new leader is expected to take the helm in Tokyo after the Dec. 16 Lower House poll.
In addition to diplomatic matters, Fujisaki feels strongly about overhauling the nation’s English-language education to increase Japan’s influence in the global arena, and is proposing three remedies to improve standards.
He argues companies should have a quota for recruiting employees who graduated from American colleges, while entrance exams for Japanese universities should also adopt more internationally recognized English exams, such as TOEFL.
Raising the language skills of English teachers at public schools by giving them the chance to study abroad is also essential, according to Fujisaki, who noted that a government program to send 100 junior high school teachers to U.S. universities for six months finally began last year.
“To prevent Japan from falling behind other countries in terms of internationalization, English education is the key,” he stressed.