Little was heard from Yasuo Fukuda, nor was much said about him, after he stepped down as prime minister in 2008. And in 2012, he declined to seek re-election to the Lower House. In recent months, however, his words and deeds have been mentioned against the backdrop of what some see as the “total collapse” of the diplomacy pursued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Late in March, one of the leading figures of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party called on Fukuda and said: “If Japan’s relations with China and South Korea remain as they are today, there will be a serious, adverse impact on the Japanese economy. Will you join hands with those who have headed the government and the legislative chambers to help improve those relations?”

Fukuda served as chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2004, and Abe was Fukuda’s deputy. Fukuda had a deep sense of crisis that Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine would seriously damage Japan’s relations with China and South Korea as the shrine honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.

Fukuda started a private advisory panel and had it write a report urging construction of a national, nonreligious facility where, Fukuda believed, anybody could pay tribute to Japan’s war dead and pray for peace without risk of antagonizing victims and adversaries of Japan during its wars in the 1930s and 40s. But his idea was ignored by Koizumi and Abe.

Fukuda resigned from his Cabinet post in May 2004. He had disagreements with Abe and Isao Iijima, who was Koizumi’s executive secretary, over Japan’s diplomacy toward North Korea concerning the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang.

Even after ending his active political career, Fukuda has remained eager to improve relations with neighboring countries. In April 2013, he became the first prominent Japanese to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had come to power only the previous month. The occasion was the Boao Forum for Asia on the Chinese island of Hainan.

Fukuda feels quite uneasy about the way Japan’s diplomacy is pursued by Abe, who returned to power in 2012 with views totally opposed to his, and by Iijima, who is deeply involved in the formation of Abe’s foreign policies as special adviser to the Cabinet.

As worries about Abe’s diplomacy begin to spread within the LDP, Fukuda has started making moves. He is backed by powerful figures within the LDP such as Toshihiro Nikai, the Lower House Budget Committee chairman, who has strong channels of communication with China and South Korea; former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who once headed the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union; Mikio Aoki, who still exerts influence over LDP Upper House members even after his retirement; and Makoto Koga, a former LDP secretary general who is still the de facto leader of Kochi-kai, one of the major intraparty factions.

As if to keep pace with Fukuda’s moves, senior LDP leaders have started criticizing Abe. For example, in a speech delivered in Yokohama on March 17, Koga denounced Abe for acting like a spoiled kid, a reference to Abe’s assertion that he is the one, as prime minister, who makes the final decision on Constitution-related matters.

Koga’s criticism was triggered by Abe’s statement made in a Feb. 12 Lower House Budget Committee meeting on the latter’s pet theme of changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution that prevents Japan from exercising the right to collective self-defense — without amending the supreme statute itself. In that session, Abe ignored Diet discussions over decades that had led to the formation of the long-standing constitutional interpretation, saying, “I have the ultimate responsibility of the government, not the director general of the Cabinet Legislative Bureau.”

Since the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is closely related to Japan’s relations with its neighbors, his statement in that committee meeting moved some LDP members to form an encircling net around Abe.

Saying that Abe has gone too far, Seiko Noda, chairwoman of the LDP’s General Council, created a special intra-party panel to review legal matters related to national security under LDP President Abe. The panel is headed by LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba, whose views are known to differ from Abe’s with regard to the right to collective self-defense. On the panel are Sanae Takaichi, chairwoman of the party’s Policy Affairs Research Council, and Masashi Waki, secretary general of the LDP Upper House caucus.

Waki is close to Aoki and is not enthusiastic about letting Japan exercise that right simply by altering the constitutional interpretation.

Abe’s statement that “I have the ultimate responsibility” (over constitutional matters) has led liberal forces within the LDP to establish the panel to put a brake on Abe’s rush on the collective self-defense issue. Tsutomu Sato, chairman of the LDP Diet Policy Committee, has predicted a delay in the government’s decision to change the constitutional interpretation. This comment, which came from a man who has close relations with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, indicates a porous relationship emerging between Abe and his top lieutenant.

Also standing in Abe’s way is New Komeito, a junior partner in the LDP-led coalition, and Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist religious sect that has New Komeito as its political arm. Yoshio Urushibara, chairman of New Komeito’s Diet Policy Committee, has written in his blog that Abe’s way of thinking is devoid of one important feature — willingness to turn his ears to ordinary citizens’ voices.

Urushibara has chaired the Diet Policy Committee since 2006. In the meatime, eight different people have served as his LDP counterpart — including current Lower House Budget Committee Chairman Nikai and former LDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima — all of whom distance themselves from Abe.

Urushibara has a close relationship with Nikai and Oshima. It’s safe to assume that Urushibara has an open communications channel with the anti-Abe forces within the LDP and that they are counting on Fukuda to lead them. It was rumored that Fukuda will soon meet with one of the top Soka Gakkai leaders.

Another key man of New Komeito is Akihiro Ota, minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism in the Abe Cabinet. He visited Fukuda in February, and when Ota brought up the issue of the right to collective self-defense, Fukuda did not wait for him to finish the sentence: “It is utterly impossible, impossible … [to change the long-standing constitutional interpretation].”

Nikai, meanwhile, has refused to give Abe much chance to speak before the Lower House Budget Committee because: “Careless comments from the prime minister could run counter to the national interests. That is why, depending on questions from the floor, I sometimes do not call on him to reply.”

At a recent committee session, Nikai asked Nobuo Ishihara, former deputy chief Cabinet secretary, to testify on the 1993 statement by Yohei Kono, then chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, that the Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the transfer of “comfort women,” who provided sex to members of the Imperial armed forces, and in the establishment and management of the comfort stations.

Ishihara, who was Kono’s deputy at the time, told the committee that although the statement was prepared based on testimonies obtained from former comfort women, no research was conducted to verify them and that it is presumed that the Japanese and South Korean governments compared and adjusted their views. Thus he hinted that the Kono statement was aimed at achieving a “political settlement” of the comfort women issue.

Nikai rejected requests from the opposition camp to seek testimonies from Kono and Sakutaro Tanino, the former ambassador to China who drafted the statement of apology and remorse — issued on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (Aug. 15, 1995) by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama — for the “tremendous damage” that Japan’s colonial rule and aggression had caused to people of Asian nations.

Ishihara’s testimony before Nikai’s Lower committee led to Abe’s statement in the Upper House Budget Committe in mid-March that he would not make any change to the Kono statement. This commitment, in turn, cleared the way for Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to meet for the first time since they came to power — Abe in December 2012 and Park in February 2013 — in The Hague on March 25 at the strong urging and in the presence of U.S. President Barack Obama. It is ironic that the stage for a step aimed at improving Tokyo-Seoul relations was set by Nikai and other veteran LDP politicians who take a dim view of Abe.

The day before the Hague meeting, Takeo Kawamura, secretary general of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union, flew to the South Korean capital at the urging of former Prime Minister Mori, who once headed that union, to pay a courtesy call on former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil. Kim was a close associate of the late President Park Chung-hee, the father of the incumbent president, and played a crucial role in normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965.

As Kim continued his endeavor to promote friendly bilateral ties even after the assassination of Park Chung-hee, Mori’s aim behind sending Kawamura to Seoul was to prevent Park Geun-hye from becoming too pro-Beijing.

Whatever hope there was for the meeting in The Hague and Kawamura’s visit to Seoul was wrecked by a remark by Koichi Hagiuda, special adviser to and close associate of Abe, who said that if new facts comes to light regarding the comfort women issue, there would be nothing wrong with the government’s issuing a new statement. This drew bitter criticism from Banri Kaieda, head of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, who said a new statement would be tantamount to a total denial of what Kono had said in 1993.

Hagiuda’s controversial remark came on the day that Abe left Tokyo for The Hague. In January, Hagiuda had scolded the U.S. for expressing “disappointment” over Abe’s visit to Yasukuni.

Although Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga denied any possibility of the government changing the content of the Kono statement, dissatisfaction over the arrogant and self-centered attitude of Abe’s inner circle is nearing its limit.

One peculiar phenomenon within Abe’s inner circle is that its members do not speak to each other. Instead, they compete to show their loyalty to the boss, but they don’t realize that doing so is dragging Abe down.

The Cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office are supposed to be united to support the man at the top. But those critical of Abe are much better organized and active than those in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Fukuda sits at the top of the anti-Abe group, which includes LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, Oshima and Nikai. Soka Gakkai and New Komeito are working closely with them.

On the evening of March 25, a meeting was held among Seiichiro Murakami of the LDP, New Komeito President Natsuo Yamaguchi, former DPJ President Katsuya Okada and Unity Party Secretary General Jiro Ono — all opposed to or cautious about the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

Nothing seems to illustrate more vividly the present status of Abe’s diplomacy than the video footage of the tripartite summit at The Hague. It showed Abe repeatedly trying to exchange words with Park, as the two flanked Obama. But Park neither smiled nor made eye contact with Abe.

Abe is now up against a wall in his conduct of diplomacy and security, areas where he thinks he excels.

This is an abridged translation of an article form the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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