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Smith: Fukuda, A Moderate Japanese Prime Minister

Interviewee: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 24, 2007

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Sheila A. Smith, a Tokyo-based CFR adjunct senior fellow, says that Yasuo Fukuda, the new Japanese prime minister, is a well-known Japanese political figure who is seen by the Japanese public as “a very adept manager of the bureaucracy.” She says that Fukuda “is a moderate, ideologically speaking,” not a conservative like his two predecessors. “He is a quite soft-spoken, self-effacing man in his public presentations,” she says. “Many people see him as very reassuring.”

Back in July, the Japanese people voted to oust the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled for years, from its majority in the upper-house of the Diet, or parliament. This led to speculation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might resign, though he insisted he would not. But on September 12, he did announce his intention to do so. Did this come as a shock to the Japanese?

Absolutely. All of us were glued to our television screens on September 12 because it was announced that he was going to hold a press conference and that he was intending to resign. The whole country was watching to see what he had to say. I think even people within the party were shocked.

The reason he resigned we don’t know, do we?

Abe gave a press conference this evening from the hospital and basically acknowledged that as long he was prime minister, he did not feel that he could talk about his health. He apologized with deep remorse for stopping the Diet to give it time to deal with his resignation which is now official.

Do we know what his health problems are?

His doctors went on TV after his resignation and said that his intestines had stopped functioning and he was in a fairly critical state.

Were people speculating cancer?

They say it is stress. There are many people talking about this; they are saying that he could not take the stress any longer.

In the Japanese political system, when the prime minister resigns, his party picks his successor. There is no automatic system, as in the United States.

When he went into the hospital, he did not choose to hand over the reins of government to the next in line, who is the cabinet secretary under the constitution. He remained acting prime minister during his hospital stay. On September 12, when he actually announced his intention to resign, he ordered the secretary-general of the LDP to begin the procedures for LDP elections for a new leader.

The person who was elected, Yasuo Fukuda, is well-known in Japan?

He is. He was widely speculated upon as a potential contender for the leadership before Abe was elected last year. But in the end, Fukuda said no; he said he was older. He’s seventy-one. He said because of his age, he chose not to run last year against Abe.

Tell us about Fukuda. He is far from a household name in the United States.

His father, Takeo Fakuda, was prime minister from 1976 to 1978. So he is a second generation leader, coming from a very well-known political family.

Is this the equivalent of the Bushes, father and son?

Yes, actually. It would be. This is the first time in Japanese history that you have a son following the father as prime minister.

What is it that the party was looking for in the new prime minister?

Abe’s resignation prompted a fairly severe leadership crisis not only for the party but for Japan as a whole. It compounded the LDP’s sense of crisis after the upper-house defeat. There were two candidates in the race. One was Taro Aso, a former foreign minister, a popular Japanese politician. Between the two candidates it was clear that Aso carried the conservative credentials of Junichiro Koizumi and Abe, the two previous prime ministers. He was able to speak easily to crowds. Fukuda’s strength is that he served as cabinet secretary for three-and-a-half years, the longest-serving cabinet secretary in the post-war years.

Is that the equivalent of the chief White House adviser?

It is bigger than that because the cabinet-secretary position is the next in line if something happens to a prime minister.

He’s like the vice president?

Kind of like the vice president. He served for three-and-a-half years under Prime Ministers Yoshiro Mori and Koizumi. He is a very adept manager of the bureaucracy. He is a moderate, ideologically speaking. He’s not the conservative that both Koizumi and Abe were. He is a quite soft-spoken, self-effacing man in his public presentations. Many people see him as very reassuring.

When we talked in July abut Abe's problems, one of the top items was a screwup in Japan's pension system—that records were lost and people's pensions were being endangered. Is this still a major issue?

It is. And that was one of the key issues in the upper-house elections in July that led voters to turn against the LDP. The other issue was a continued series of corruption problems involving cabinet ministers. Fukuda comes to office with a very clean image, in that respect. He seems to the public to be a reliable figure who will make sure that he takes responsibility for his cabinet’s behavior and actions.

When I've told people about the pension problems, people here can't understand it. You would think that Japan, with its vast bureaucracy, would have a clear record of people’s pension records, including what they had contributed and what they were owed. How could this have fallen into such disarray?

It seems to be local corruption. Local governments in Japan run the pension system. If you and I are Japanese, we go to our local government to register to get our “book”—our little pension book, in which our savings are deposited. These are issues of petty corruption, people stealing the funds, for example, leading to incomplete or lost records. The shock of most Japanese is the same as that of the people you were talking to. They believed that the Japanese government would be meticulous in their record keeping. There was the issue of the missing money, but Abe aggravated it by saying: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.” But he didn’t quite understand the depth of people’s anger over the issue.

Fukuda announced that one of the first things he was going to do in this new legislative session, which is about to start again, is to put forward a new pension-reform bill. He’s promising to take care of this problem.

On foreign policy issues, which of course concern Washington: Any change in Japan's participation in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, or on Japan’s cooperation in Afghanistan?

Those two issues need to be watched. The most immediate policy issue is the anti-terror legislation. This needs to be renewed on November 1. This permits Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force [its navy] to go to the Indian Ocean to help refuel ships involved in supplying Afghanistan. Just before he went into the hospital, Abe had gone to Australia and met with Bush and others and promised to keep Japan’s contribution in the Indian Ocean. The reality is that this is the second issue in this extraordinary Diet session. The Democratic Party of Japan, in winning the upper-house election, pledged to oppose the extension of the current law.

What does the current law provide?

It allows Japan’s force to go to the Indian Ocean to refuel the coalition ships. They have been doing this since 2001. This is how Japan contributes to the Afghanistan effort.

The law allows Japan’s military to play contributory roles, but not a combat role. There is some talk about a new bill, but that might have to wait next January when the Diet holds its regular session. That would mean the Japanese might have to halt Indian Ocean activities for a while.

Fukuda says that he will present a new bill this week.

And on the Six-Party Talks?

On the stump, when Aso and Fukuda were giving speeches and talking to the foreign press, North Korea was an issue where you could clearly see a difference. Fukuda basically emphasizes that Japan needs to negotiate, Japan needs to talk, needs to engage. He will embrace that approach. So he’s signaling that he wants to move Japan into a more flexible position. In that sense, he represents, at least in terms of Japan’s diplomacy, a much more moderate and conciliatory group within the LDP. He differs quite a bit from Abe and Koizumi.

This goes to the question of the Japanese who were kidnapped by the North Koreans, yes?

When Koizumi was prime minister, he went to North Korea, and then announced that the North Koreans acknowledged they had abductees, that many of them had died. Some of them were returned in following years. But Japanse public reaction has been intensely critical of the government and was quite effective in lobbying the government to basically halt economic assistance until the abductee issue was resolved. People want a full disclosure of who was abducted, and the return of remains from North Korea. They are looking for information and transparency from Pyongyang. That’s a process that will take some time.

What is the number of people unaccounted for?

The association of family abductees says there are more so far than has been acknowledged. They say about thirty to forty. Fukuda says you have to negotiate and that denuclearization is a goal that serves the region. Fukuda wants greater cooperation with the United States and other states to bring about agreements.

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