October 12, 2007; Volume 03, Number 36

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

East China Sea Gas Exploitation Talks Continue
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s First 18 Days in Office.
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s Friday again already! October 12th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 36, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for tuning in again. I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Each week at this time we consider events in the news that seem to have longer-term significance for Japan’s domestic politics or Japan’s conduct of international relations. Not just “who did what, and with which, and to whom,” so to speak. But what the events selected tell us about how political Japan actually works. Especially in cases where the conclusions vary from conventional understanding.

The last couple of programs for some reason have generated far more e-mail response than usual. Thanks to all of you who have taken the trouble to write in. I appreciate your comments and suggestions. Keep ‘em coming. Directly to me at RobertCAngel@Gmail.com.

In addition to a healthy increase in the number of listeners subscribing to the Podcast via iTunes and other podcast aggregators, we’ve had quite a few more hits on the new Japan Considered website than in the past. In response to your suggestions, I’ve just recently added a search window to the website’s home page. This is a trial effort. So click on over and give it a try. Just enter a word or phrase in the window, and the FreeFind search feature is supposed to return all web pages on the Japan Considered site that contain that word or phrase. More advanced searches are possible as well. Let me know how it works for you. Or doesn’t work.

This week we’ll spend most of our time together trying to complete the early assessment of the selection of Yasuo Fukuda as LDP president and prime minister, and of Fukuda the man.

East China Sea Gas Exploitation Talks Continue

But before that, let’s take a quick look at the latest round of talks between Japan and Mainland China over exploitation of gas reserves in the East China Sea. These bilateral talks have been going on, now, for three years. With meetings held alternately in Tokyo and Beijing. From time to time, senior political figures from both countries have made public statements encouraging progress. The latest of these Summit Pronouncements came when Prime Minister Abe met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in April of this year. They announced during their joint press conference that the issue had to be settled by “this fall.”

We’ve followed this issue for some time on this program. So, if you’re interested, use the new search facility on the home page of the Japan Considered Project website to look back at earlier comments.

This tenth round of bilateral meetings had been scheduled for September 21st. But, according to spokesmen for both sides, the date had to be postponed because of unexpected developments in the Six-Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program. So, they were re-scheduled for yesterday, Thursday, the 11th.

As in the past, each side was represented by bureau directors general. The Foreign Ministry’s peripatetic Kenichiro Sasae holding up the end for Japan.

Well, judging from comments made by participants and spokesmen for both sides last night, Beijing time, little or nothing was accomplished yet again. As always, the talks were described as “constructive.” Even “useful.” But that’s DiploSpeak meaning “we didn’t accomplish much, but we didn’t leave mad.”

This would be a tough issue for any two countries to manage. Let alone two countries with as much at stake as China and Japan have here. It goes well beyond the specifics of gas exploitation. The problem is complicated by the overlapping exclusive economic zones claimed by Japan and China. China doesn’t recognize the “split it down the middle” line suggested by Japan. And Japan is unwilling to accept China’s claim that their extended continental shelf should extend China’s exclusive economic zone almost to Okinawa!  

Inevitable concern over this boundary demarcation intensified when natural gas deposits were discovered in and near the disputed area of the East China Sea. China, against agreements the Japanese side thought they had, already has begun extracting gas from an area near Japan’s demarcation line. And Japan at these bilateral meetings has proposed a solution that would involve joint development of the resources available. And, according to press reports, even has offered to pay some of China’s exploration costs. China, however, has refused.

Border disputes of this sort ideally are settled through application of internationally accepted dispute resolution rules. Under international law. Solutions the negotiators from both sides find easy to justify to their host governments, and the publics of their host countries. They’re “international,” after all! Well, those rules simply won’t work here. Given the geography and geology of the East China Sea.

This means that only a bilateral political settlement will solve the dispute. But that’s easier said than done. The governments of both sides are reluctant to take any such action. Anything that might expose them to accusations from their domestic political adversaries of “giving away sacred national territory.” Or “failing to uphold national interests.” That’s as true in China today as it is in Japan. Sooo, which side will blink first? Both undoubtedly believes that the other is in a better position to “blink,” so to speak. For the greater good of the bilateral relationship.

Which brings us to why this latest round of bilateral East China Sea talks is of interest to us now. Why, a busy listener might ask, bother us with a report that yet another round of bilateral talks had failed? Well, here’s why.

This was the first round of bilateral talks on this issue, or any other issue, between China and Japan since Yasuo Fukuda became prime minister. Fukuda was described in Japan’s political press throughout his campaign for the LDP presidency and premiership as a “moderate.” A “conciliator.” And especially, as a “good friend of China.” We’ve discussed on past programs why that happened.

China’s press too has been doing all they can to promote that image as well. Some of the media articles about Fukuda coming from Beijing these days are quite remarkable! American and European journalists would do well to take what they hear “off the record” from Beijing these days with at least two grains of salt. Especially when it relates to Prime Minister Fukuda’s attitudes toward, and relationships with, China or the United States.   

Sooo, might it not be possible that such a person would be willing to make concessions on this issue? If only to demonstrate early on that he deserved such a reputation? Wouldn’t it be likely that Fukuda would provide his negotiator, Director-General Sasae, with more leeway to compromise during the latest round of talks? If only to get this ill-tasting issue off Japan’s diplomatic plate? That makes sense.

But … That’s not what happened. The talks this time went pretty much as they have in the past. Fairly polite iterations, and reiterations, of established positions. With no reported movement on either side. Hmmm.

If that wasn’t enough, Japan’s newly appointed minister of foreign affairs, Masahiko Komura, met China’s newly appointed ambassador to Japan, Cui Tiankai, in Tokyo last night, Tokyo time. Right after the bilateral meetings were held in Beijing. Komura told Cui that Japan believes only a “political decision” can resolve the East China Sea issue. That Japan expects China to make that “political decision,” for the sake of the overall bilateral relationship. In other words, China shouldn’t expect the Fukuda Government to be the one to blink.

Just as this East China Sea issue is too important to ignore, it’s also important not to exaggerate the significance of the failure of the latest round of bilateral negotiations. Neither Japan nor China is yet willing to take the first step toward what they’ve described as a “political” settlement. And, the outcome of this latest round suggests that Prime Minister Fukuda’s concept of Sino-Japanese relations isn’t radically different from that of his recent predecessors. That’s important, of course. Makes it worth mentioning here, I think.

But neither the Chinese nor the Japanese side has attempted to use the East China Sea gas exploitation issue to incite public resentment against the other country for some time now. No violent demonstrations in the streets. No press conferences featuring angry, weepy, senior government officials. And that’s a very good sign.

We’ll just have to wait to see what happens between now and the next round of talks, scheduled tentatively for early November. I’ll try to keep you posted.  

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s First 18 Days in Office.

Let’s turn now to consideration of the first 18 days of Yasuo Fukuda’s premiership. We made some progress on this topic last week. But the program was running way too long. So I couldn’t justify continuing to the end. Also, today we have another seven days of experience with Fukuda at the helm to inform our speculation.

Last week, if you recall, we reviewed just how Yasuo Fukuda ended up as Shinzo Abe’s successor. As the LDP’s president and Japan’s prime minister. With attention to the nature of the competition between Taro Aso, who appeared to be Shinzo Abe’s preferred successor, and Fukuda himself.

And we closed last week considering the significance of the selection process for Yasuo Fukuda’s premiership. Clearly, Fukuda became LDP president and prime minister through the support of eight of the LDP’s nine faction leaders. He probably wouldn’t even have considered becoming a candidate had they not encouraged him to do so.

But does this mean that Fukuda has become, or inevitably will become, a good old fashioned traditional Factionist/Zokuist prime minister? Of the sort we haven’t seen since at least Yoshiro Mori? If not before? Will the nature of the support that lifted Fukuda into office severely constrain his independence as Japan’s chief political executive?

In other words, will Fukuda be forced to clear every major decision he makes with the LDP’s faction leaders who supported him before a cabinet decision can be announced? Will he be forced to accept the recommendations of the LDP’s major faction leaders when he selects – and replaces – key Party and Government personnel? More quietly, behind the scenes, will he be forced to protect the relationships between LDP faction leaders and zokuists with private sector “special interests”?  By throttling back the investigative zeal of the Prosecutors Offices we’ve seen on display during the past few years? And, have we now seen the end of the more meaningful political and administrative reforms pursued by Koizumi and Abe? Especially those that inconvenience the LDP’s Factionists and Zokuists, and their private-sector “clients”? which is about all of them.

Maybe so. But I’m inclined to doubt it. During the campaign for the LDP presidency between Taro Aso and Yasuo Fukuda, it certainly looked that way to me. Especially, given the efforts of Japan’s national political press to portray Aso as the steely-eyed, hard-nosed conservative, and Fukuda as the more “conciliatory,” “reasonable,” and “non-ideological” candidate. However, just as happens to analysts on the other end of the ideological spectrum, my own ideological proclivities may have made it more difficult for me to recognize what Fukuda actually was saying. How he was behaving. Dunno. But that could be.

Certainly, since his victory, there have been indications that Fukuda has “taken care” of some of his Factionist supporters. Even before being elected as prime minister, he rewarded LDP faction leaders who had supported him with important Party positions. The LDP secretary generalship went to Bummei Ibuki. While Sadakazu Tanigaki was selected to head the Policy Research Council. And he decided to retain Toshihiro Nikai as chair of the Party’s General Council. Makoto Koga was a special, and difficult, case. As head of the third-largest LDP Faction he deserved consideration under the traditional model. Fukuda made him the head of the Election Strategy Bureau, and elevated the rank of that post in the Party hierarchy.

Sooo, considering only Fukuda’s distribution of senior LDP positions, one could be excused for concluding that Fukuda was following the good old traditional model of faction balancing. A good sign he was headed in that direction.

However, once elected by the Lower House as Japan’s next prime minister, Fukuda’s cabinet personnel decisions were another matter again. In spite of heavy, often public, pressure from senior LDP faction members for wholesale changes in the Cabinet. Changes through which they and their colleagues would be rewarded for their support. Fukuda replaced only a few of the members of Shinzo Abe’s second cabinet. Arguing that continuity was necessary since the Diet is in session. And Cabinet members must be prepared to respond to questions there.

Further, the changes he did make all were justifiable, even to the suspicious observer, like me, on the grounds of expertise. Few observers have criticized Fukuda’s decision to replace Yoshihisa Shiozaki with Nobutaka Machimura as chief cabinet secretary. Machimura is well qualified by personal talent and political experience to fulfill the functions of that incumbent-punishing job.

Fukuda’s decision to replace Taro Aso with Masahiko Komura as foreign minister too requires no justification beyond personal talent and “job fit,” so to speak. The same case can be made for Shigeru Ishiba as Defense Minister. Fukuda is said to have offered Aso himself a cabinet position. But Aso declined the offer, to devote himself to other matters. Whether the offer was sincere, we’ll never know. But it seems certain that it actually was made, and turned down.

Without subjecting you to a laundry list of all cabinet appointments, I’ll only add that Fukuda also decided to retain two of Abe’s ministers who openly and actively supported Taro Aso’s candidacy in the LDP presidential race. They were Kunio Hatoyama, as Justice Minister. And Akira Amari, as METI minister. As we’ve discussed before on this program, Fukuda’s decision to retain Hatoyama may be especially important. Since Japan’s national-level prosecutors ultimately work for the Minister of Justice. A position that’s proven sensitive in the past.

Sooo, it seems reasonable to conclude that Yasuo Fukuda was able to resist pressure from the senior faction leaders who propelled him into office. He could easily have justified replacing many more of the thirteen members he decided to retain. Distributing the “spoils” among the factions. According to their levels of support. He didn’t. And while we’ve heard some grumbling from disappointed LDP Faction members, his first cabinet has been well received by Japan’s political press and punditocracy.

Again, it’s far too early to form any solid conclusions. But it appears to me that in spite of the traditional Factionist support he received, Yasuo Fukuda has during the first 18 days of his premiership, at least, has avoided becoming a traditional Factionist prime minister. Perhaps because, as I suggested last week, the faction leaders came to him, rather than him going to the faction leaders, asking for their support.

 We’ll have to watch closely what Fukuda and his cabinet actually do during the weeks and months to come. How he responds to continuing pressure within the LDP to stifle political and administrative reforms that so inconvenience the Party’s Factionists and Zokuists. And to limit investigations of political money problems, and the bid-rigging that so often is related. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re coming in very nearly on time this week. That’s encouraging. We even have time for a short clip of bluegrass at the end of the program. Here’s a selection from John Duffey’s “Always in Style” album, “Say won’t you be mine.” A great performance that I hope you enjoy. John, we miss you.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye All. Until next week.