Fukuda hounded out of office

by Gregory Clark

Japan’s PR-vulnerable public and lightheaded media have done it again. Between them they have got rid of yet another of Japan’s better prime ministers. I have no brief for Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s policies. On two key issues I think he was wrong. One was his determination to force through legislation allowing Japan’s naval vessels to continue Indian Ocean refueling for U.S. aircraft heading off to bomb more Afghan wedding parties and villages. But no doubt he was inspired by the promise he and his predecessors had made to Washington to assist that conventional wisdom called the “war on terror.”

He was also wrong on economic policy. But here too he was a victim of another conventional wisdom — the one that says Tokyo has to cut spending to reduce its fiscal deficit. Like so many in Japan’s ruling and media elite he had yet to learn that for Japan with its chronic lack of consumer demand, cutting government spending can easily push the economy into deflationary spirals that increase rather than reduce the government deficit.

Besides, the deficit is not the problem they think it is. But intellectual genius is not a prime ministerial requirement in Japan. One has to flow with the tide, and in both cases the tide was created by people of even less intellectual genius, in particular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who thought the U.S. intervention in Iraq was wonderful and that the supply side U.S. economic policies introduced by his immature economic acolyte, Heizo Takenaka — and which did Japan such harm — were even more wonderful.

What Fukuda did have was integrity. The media and the commentators inevitably are trying to portray him as irresponsible for resigning when he did. And where were they when he was left to battle alone against the problems of the nejire kokkai (literally, the screwed-up Diet) with its Upper House majority led by Democratic Party of Japan boss Ichiro Ozawa.

This plus having to deal with the raft of other problems he had inherited had clearly depressed him — political funds scandals, pension scandals, health claim injustices and so on. But as usual in Japan it is the person who tries to do something about problems and scandals who takes the blame.

Clearly Fukuda was getting fed up with his role as fall guy. During his spell as chief Cabinet secretary during the Koizumi regime he impressed with his brevity, wit and decisiveness in defending government actions, even if he disagreed with them, only to be hit with some irrelevant media scandal.

He reacted with a quick and sudden resignation. “There, take that” was his attitude then. We have just seen a repeat performance. His Diet problems deserve special sympathy. Facing Ozawa, a man with a well-deserved reputation for unscrupulous, power-seeking tactics, he was put in an impossible situation.

Both Ozawa and many of the DPJ people around him are far more hawkish and pro-U.S. than the liberal Fukuda. For them to feign opposition to the Indian Ocean refueling operation was hypocritical. But as a result Fukuda had to go though the painful business of passing legislation, sending it to the Upper House where it would be rejected, from where it had to be sent back to the Lower House, where it needed a two-thirds majority to pass — a tenuous majority now threatened by his Komeito coalition allies, who up till now have had to renege on their antiwar principles to support him on this issue.

Ozawa’s stone-walling tactics were clearly going to continue on a host of other issues, regardless of legislative need. On top of all this, I suspect, has been an grinding intraparty debate on economic policy.

Many in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whether out of expediency or principle, have been pushing for the expanded government spending needed to win elections and help economic recovery. The government’s recent promise of an economic stimulus in the forthcoming supplementary budget shows they got their way. But for Fukuda it must have been an unhappy retreat, worsened once again by Komeito threats to revolt if not adopted. Without Komeito support, now increasingly doubtful, a LDP victory in Lower House elections due within a year will be impossible.

Overhanging the election problem have been the media again, with their polls showing the prime minister’s low popularity ratings. Fukuda, with his bland, dry manner, was poor material for them, and they said so. Then when they asked Japan’s impressionable public for an opinion and got the answer they wanted, they then used it to impose further denigration, hopefully leading to a resignation that would give them yet another news-fest.

It is a popular tactic with them. A good example was the fate of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001). From the start he had made it clear he would not play up to the media. The media then portrayed him as some kind of bumbling buffoon. His popularity ratings collapsed. He was soon replaced by the media-popular Koizumi.

In fact, Mori was also one of Japan’s better prime ministers. As with Fukuda over China, he had foreign policy achievements, especially in policy toward Russia and North Korea. In domestic economic policy he also got it right.

I saw him close up as a member of Japan’s National Peoples Council on Education Reform and was impressed by his sharpness and directness — qualities that today have given him elder statesman status. But don’t expect Japan’s giddy media to self-reflect on all this. They live for the moment.

At the end of his press conference announcing his resignation, Fukuda turned to the assembled journalists and said in effect: “I was in a position to see the objective reality, something you people will never understand.” Well said.

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