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Reluctant runner viewed as possible Fukuda fill-in

It is expected that a race for Japan’s national leadership will start after Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda hosts the summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Toyako, Hokkaido, in July.

As the popularity of Fukuda dwindles, many political insiders think it will be impossible for him to dissolve the Lower House and hold general elections. That’s because the Liberal Democratic Party leadership is haunted by the nightmare of the resounding defeat it suffered in last July’s Upper House election under Fukuda’s immediate predecessor, Shinzo Abe. The general consensus following the loss was that the party is unable to win in the next Lower House election under the incumbent prime minister.

Several prominent figures within the ruling LDP are mentioned as likely to succeed Fukuda in the not too distant future. Among them are Taro Aso, former foreign minister who lost to Fukuda in the LDP presidential election last year, and Yuriko Koike, former defense minister who some hope will become Japan’s first female head of the government.

A possible dark horse to fill the political vacuum for a short term is Kaoru Yosano, former chief Cabinet secretary, reputed to be second to none in his ability to draw up policy measures.

Thus Yosano has support among top civil servants, leading business figures and media tycoons. Yet, he categorically denies any interest in taking the reins of government, presumably because he realizes he is not good at winning elections or because he does not like campaigning.

Since taking his first shot at a legislative seat in 1972, he has won nine times and lost three. This is an unusually poor record for a man who has held many high-ranking political posts. The fact that he is a grandson of Tekkan and Akiko Yosano, both celebrated poets, has not been much help in gaining him ballots.

He is totally urban, perhaps because he spent much of his adolescent years overseas with his diplomat father. While living in Egypt, where he studied at a British school, he was insulted for being a citizen of a defeated country, which motivated him to work toward making Japan a first-class nation. His command of English is such that he can read books on quantum mechanics.

But a man like Yosano abhors walking down back alleys, shaking hands with citizens and begging for votes without any chance of discussing issues. Another minus factor for campaigns is said to be his wife Tomoko. She steadfastly opposed his plan to change his career from that of a salaried worker to politician until he promised he would not seek her help during election campaigns.

She has distanced herself from his political activities to the extent that when he lost an election, one of his principal supporters lamented, “If only Mrs. Yosano had bowed her head before voters to get some support for him.”

She detests any talk of her husband becoming prime minister, and is not friendly to newspaper reporters. When some keep talking with her husband into the wee hours at his home, she has shouted at them to go home.

Despite all these seeming weaknesses, Yosano appears to be gaining confidence in his political presence. On May 16, for example, Fukuda asked Yosano to come up with an idea to resolve problems arising from the controversial new health insurance plan for people aged 75 or over. Four days later, he was named to head a special LDP panel to discuss how to “give assurance and vitality to the elderly.” This was rooted in suggestions Yosano had made to Fukuda a week earlier to promote measures to give people of advanced age a sense of vitality.

Fukuda seems to rely more on Yosano — whom he has met only four times since taking office — than on former LDP secretary general Hidenao Nakagawa, who calls on the prime minister at least once every two weeks.

Still, Yosano tries to keep some distance between him and Fukuda. When the LDP lost a Lower House by-election in Yamaguchi Prefecture in April, Yosano blamed Fukuda and the LDP, saying the defeat should be regarded as an overall evaluation of the regime.

When an impasse developed over the appointment of a new governor of the Bank of Japan because of a disagreement between the ruling LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition party, Yosano cautioned against blaming the problem all on the DPJ “no matter how puerile that party may be.”

Yosano’s straightforward way of speaking to the prime minister while distancing himself from him has earned him a reputation as someone different from a politician working only for self-interest. This, in turn, has led a certain group of politicians to favor him as a successor to Fukuda.

One major weakness, however, is that he does not have much support. He does not belong to any intraparty faction of the LDP because he does not like to run around asking for political contributions. He may not able to get more than 10 members of the Diet to support him, even with help from former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whom Yosano once served for as secretary.

Although Yosano underwent surgery for throat cancer in late 2006, the experience of having overcome the disease is said to have helped him overcome a trait of indecisiveness.

He has lately been actively meeting with a wide spectrum of political big shots including former Foreign Minister Aso; former Kochi Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto, who is keen on creating a new political party; DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa; and Ozawa’s intraparty rival Seiji Maehara.

An insider close to Yosano said, “You cannot rule out the possibility of his becoming a viable candidate for premiership, because even Fukuda, who had kept saying he did not like being a politician, reached the pinnacle. When an opportunity presents itself, Yosano is not going to refuse it.”

Will he defy his wife’s opposition again and begin the race to succeed Fukuda?

This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social topics.