The sweeping victory by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party may have given the reformist leader a strong mandate for reform, but political experts are hoping the decisive gains will also give him the power needed to resolve sensitive issues on the diplomatic front.
Sunday’s electoral uplift comes at a time when Japan finds itself facing several prickly issues, including its role in the United States’ global military realignment, extension of the Self-Defense Forces’ mission in Iraq and strained ties with neighbors in Asia.
If Koizumi fails to seize this opportunity, observers warn, these expectations could quickly turn into disappointment and damage Japan’s international standing.
Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University in Tokyo, said the U.S. has always been irritated by Japan’s political process, where it is difficult to see who really has the power to implement policies.
“But if Japan’s political system is becoming more like a presidential government (whose leader holds ultimate power), the U.S. will expect the prime minister to wield power to push such issues forward,” he said. “U.S. officials will be deeply disappointed if Koizumi fails to fulfill their expectations.”
The first postelection diplomatic test for Koizumi’s government may be the regrouping of U.S. forces in Japan. Because negotiations were put on ice for the election campaign, Washington is eager to resume the dialogue, which includes the issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture to an alternative site.
The two nations agreed in 1996 to return the land occupied by the Futenma base once a substitute facility off Henoko, in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, was built.
The relocation is behind schedule due to opposition from local residents and environmentalists. The two sides are now reportedly discussing relocating Futenma’s functions to a different site.
Because of the strong interest of local governments that host U.S. military bases, smooth coordination and mutual trust are a must for the realignment plans to be implemented, observers say.
Toyo University’s Nishikawa suggested that Koizumi either take the initiative himself to persuade and coordinate with local leaders or appoint a political heavyweight as foreign minister to act on his behalf.
Even if bureaucrats were to draft a realignment plan, the process will not make headway if it lacks the prime minister’s support, he added.
Meanwhile, the concerns of China and South Korea are apparently focused on if and when the prime minister will visit war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
After Sunday’s election, Koizumi said he will make an “appropriate decision” on whether to visit the Shinto shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals among Japan’s war dead.
Zhu Jianrong, a professor of international relations at Toyo Gakuen University in Chiba Prefecture, said Koizumi should build a national secular war memorial where leaders both at home and abroad can pay their respects without causing a stir.
The Class-A war criminals were deemed responsible for waging war against the Allies, said Zhu, an expert on Sino-Japanese affairs.
“If he keeps saying the Yasukuni visits are a domestic issue, neighboring countries will harden their attitude” toward Japan, he added.
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