Getting Japan’s politics wrong

by Gregory Clark

Western media have reported Japan’s new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, as drab and unexciting and even as “lukewarm pizza.” But anyone who watched him during his more than three-year stint as chief Cabinet secretary would know that he has a sharp mind and a laid-back sense of humor.

We are now discovering that he also has a quiet determination. If he is unexciting, it is because he realizes the virtue of conciliation rather than confrontation.

Just a few years back, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was dubbed “cold pizza” by some Western media. In fact, to anyone who knew him, he was open and warmhearted. Even if you did not know him, his willingness to ignore the United States and have Japan approve the global ban on lethal land mines suggested that he was not your ordinary insensitive, power-grabbing Japanese politician — that he had a heart and a soul. None of that got much mention in the Western media.

His successor, Yoshiro Mori, was equally misrepresented. He refused to play up to the Japanese media, so in revenge they pounced on anything frank and impromptu he said before any audience, no matter how private, to prove that he was a bumbler.

To anyone who knew him, he was sharp and incisive — a quality that allows him even today to play a kingmaker role in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He also made some very sensible moves to try to resolve the abductee issue with North Korea and the territorial issue with Moscow. But sure enough, Japan’s lightheaded media said those moves were also bumbles. In the Western media, which inevitably takes its lead from the Japanese media, he is still accused of being “gaffe prone.”

Next came Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the showman. Japan was always vulnerable to booms and fads, and provided they stayed at the level of koalas, pandas and Australian frilly lizards, they could not do too much damage. But when it came to Kozumi waving hands and hair and promising something called “structural reform,” we should have known we were in trouble.

Claiming a need to clean up bank bad loans and cut public debt, he and his heavily U.S.-influenced adviser, Heizo Takenaka, caused massive bankruptcies, threw the nation into unneeded recession, created severe wealth divisions (kakusa) in this once fairly egalitarian society and left us with an ugly banking oligopoly plus an extra ¥200 trillion of public debt to boot. Brilliant.

Meanwhile, China, with an even larger bank bad-loan problem, solved it simply by continued economic expansion. It also greatly enhanced its Asian status at Japan’s expense as a result.

Yet throughout this fiasco the media, the commentators and anyone else of influence would religiously recite the Koizumi mantra of structural reform as if it had biblical authority. Western media were equally enthralled. Anyone who cast doubts on his wisdom was quickly ignored and blackballed. We were back to the Japan of the past when the nation, mesmerized by emperor worship, believed its own propaganda about ultimate victory even as its forces were being wiped out and its cities bombed.

True, Fukuda still feels he has to pay ritual homage to the structural reform slogan. But his promise to spend more in neglected areas of the economy reverses a large part of the Koizumi-Takenaka program.

Yet another sign of the times is the way the few who opposed the Koizumi obsession over post office privatization are finally being allowed to return from blackball exile. They include Takeo Hiranuma, a leading Liberal Democratic Party intellectual, who also realized the folly of the Koizumi-Takenaka economic policies even if he had to remain silent at the time.

Finally the commentators are beginning to say openly that Japan has had enough of Koizumi’s theater (gekijo) politics, and that it was time for the more conciliatory and mild-mannered Fukuda to take the stage.

Foreign policies are also being revamped. The Koizumi obsession with visiting the contentious Yasukuni Shrine and boosting the military did enough damage to Japan’s diplomacy in Asia. But his successor, Shinzo Abe, did far worse with his obsessive desire for constitutional reform that would allow Japan’s remilitarization; his deliberate exaggeration of the abductee issue to destroy the Koizumi breakthrough with North Korea; and his bizarre attempt to create an anti-China arc extending from Taiwan, down to Australia, then up to India, and including the U.S. and possibly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Abe did not pull these ideas out of thin air. Calls for Japan’s militarization, the rewriting of school textbooks, denial of war guilt, bitter contempt for Japan’s alleged postwar “pacifist senility” (heiwa boke) and dislike of China had been meat and bread on the rightwing guru circuit for decades.

Abe was one of their students. But now, with the nonconfrontational and pro-China Fukuda in control, this rightwing push could come to a shuddering halt. Highly significant is Tokyo’s current willingness to listen to vocal Okinawan protests against the move under Abe to have school textbooks deny the role of the Japanese military in forcing mass suicides during the last stages of the war there.

Toward North Korea the changes could be more dramatic. The strange rightwing attempt to drag the U.S. into supporting Japan’s contrived abductee issue, even at the expense of delaying North Korea’s denuclearization, seems clearly to have backfired. With it has gone the hope that Pyongyang could continue to be demonized and used as a threat to justify Japan’s continued remilitarization.

The commentators now feel free to suggest the previously unthinkable — that Tokyo’s hard abductee line toward Pyongyang is going nowhere and needs to be reversed. Reports say Fukuda will soon send an envoy to Pyongyang to seek a solution.

What we are seeing in all this is typically Japanese. For a time the nation allows itself willy-nilly to be dragged in one direction. But when it hits a brick wall, as it clearly had with the economy and the China/North Korea issues, it is just as happy to start moving in the opposite direction. Japan’s 1945 switch from rampant militarism to deep pacifism was one example. Let’s hope this time the mood for change does not get derailed. And that the Western media finally get their act right over Japan.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net.