March 28, 2008; Volume 04, Number 11

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Japan’s Treatment of the Anti-Beijing Demonstrations in Tibet
Post-World War Two Evolution of Japan-China Relations
Prime Minister Fukuda’s Thursday Press Conference:
Why Fukuda Decided to End the Road Construction Earmark
Concluding Comments

Good Afternoon. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s Friday again, March 28th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 14, Number 11, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

It’s a beautiful day here in the South Carolina Midlands. Temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s this afternoon. Just a slight breeze. A beautiful, clear Carolina Blue sky. Couldn’t be better. I hope all of you have the same as you listen around the world.

Speaking of listeners, the audience continues to grow. The past couple of weeks it appears that the greatest increases are in the United States. Though the Asian and European figures continue to rise. Thanks for your attention. And when you have time, drop an e-mail to me directly at To comment on the program, or make a suggestion. As usual, the past few months, I’m a bit behind on responses. But I read them all as they come in. Good to know someone’s out there. Earlier this week, in fact, I received a short note from a well-known expert on Japan’s New Komeito Party. With just the hint of an offer to discuss Komeito’s role in the Ruling Coalition one of these days. That would be a terrific addition to the program. I’ll keep after him to do the SkypePhone interview!

This week, though, we’ll have to focus on just two topics. In order to meet our program length obligations. First, the follow-up on the Japan-China relations issue we began to consider last week. And then a look at the fate of the Fukuda Cabinet, with attention to the many challenges facing Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda these days. A broad topic indeed, that could keep us here for many, many hours. But I’ll try to boil it down to just one interesting – even intriguing – event.

Japan’s Treatment of the Anti-Beijing Demonstrations in Tibet

Last week I briefly mentioned Japan’s response to Beijing’s Tibet problem. Providing a bare outline of the details of Beijing’s latest problem. And then noting it was significant that Tokyo’s response was very cautious. Especially when compared to that of other major capitals around the world. Japan’s Foreign Ministry and Kantei immediately asked both Beijing and the Tibetan demonstrators to exercise “restraint.” To try to work out their differences. But that was about it. Well, that, and the normal call for Beijing to protect the security of any Japanese who found themselves in Tibet at the time of the demonstrations.

Tokyo’s quiet, cautious response to Beijing’s problem with Tibet has continued throughout this week. Official requests that Beijing resolve the problem non-violently. Combined with calls for “greater transparency” in coping with the problem. A term that recalls Japan’s response to China’s rapidly expanding military budget. But still, quite calm.

Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga met with his Chinese counterpart in Tokyo early in the week. According to Nukaga’s subsequent statements to the Japanese press, he urged the Chinese government to settle the issue peacefully. And to seek “international understanding.” Whatever that means. Important here for us, though, is that Finance Minister Nukaga – never shy with the press – didn’t take the opportunity to discomfit his official Chinese guests over the eruption of anti-Chinese demonstrations in Tibet. Or any other issue, for that matter.

LDP former secretary-general, Hidenao Nakagawa visited Beijing early this week for widely publicized talks with senior Chinese officials. Presumably, to facilitate arrangements for President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan in early May. Nakagawa, another senior LDP official known for his frank statements to the Japanese media, also exercised caution when it came to Tibet. Not going beyond the “we hope you play nicely together” admonition from Tokyo.

Only Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura had any edge at all on his public statements concerning Tibet. And that – for Machimura, at least – was pretty mild. He only urged greater transparency, and early in the week urged Beijing to allow foreign diplomatic representatives to visit the Tibetan capital. To see for themselves.

Sooo, what explains Japan’s muted response to the eruption of violent anti-Beijing demonstrations in Tibet? Especially when the Europeans and other observers around the world have been berating China right and left! As in European suggestions they may boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympic games this fall. Or, at the very least, will keep their eyes tightly shut during the playing of the Chinese national anthem, if they do attend! Japan’s political press throughout the week has been chuck full of detailed descriptions of international criticism of Beijing. Indeed, I found many more articles on U.S. concerns in the Japanese press than in the U.S. press! Why hasn’t Tokyo taken greater advantage of China’s obvious vulnerability here? Let alone addressed the substance of the issue!

Well, it’s hard to tell. But, as I mentioned last week, I suspect the Tibet demonstrations came at a time when Tokyo’s primary objective was a successful Japan visit by Chinese president, Hu Jintao. With Japan’s efforts to prepare for the visit more tightly focused on the East China Sea dispute. Hoping for some breakthrough there. With concessions on both sides. An objective considerably more important than any tactical advantage pressure on Tibet would produce. When asked about the East China Sea negotiations during his televised meetings with Japan’s political press, Prime Minister Fukuda has been cautious and brief in his responses. Just hoping for progress, and so on. We’ll just have to wait to see if Hu’s Japan visit produces any progress on this potentially dangerous border dispute.

Post-World War Two Evolution of Japan-China Relations

Let’s try to put these interesting current events into some historical perspective. I’ve said it many times before. But it bears repeating. The relationship between Japan and China is the most important in Asia. And possibly, in longer-term, the most important in the world. Both states, at different times in history, have dominated Asia. Both states consider themselves the appropriate, and obvious, leader of 21st century Asia. But neither will allow the other to dominate Asia again peacefully. Therefore, it’s well worth our time to keep track of how that relationship is going. And to consider its prospects for the future.

For decades following World War Two official contact between the two states was limited. Japan throughout the period was eager to “normalize” the relationship. But Beijing ran hot and cold on improving bilateral relations with Japan. Depending upon the domestic political situation in China at the time. Under such conditions, China was able demand concessions from Japan – material or symbolic – confident that Japan’s political leadership would agree.

A minor incident was sufficient to ignite “Outrage” in China. And while China was “Outraged,” the bilateral relationship deteriorated. Japan, of course, wasn’t allowed to become ‘Outraged.” That privilege was reserved for China.

Japan’s successive prime ministers dreaded those eruptions of Chinese Outrage. Since they themselves were certain to be blamed by most of Japan’s communications media for damaging – or failing to properly manage – Japan’s relationship with China, whenever they erupted. Exactly as Beijing had planned.

This pattern of Sino-Japanese relations ended during the Koizumi premiership. When Koizumi refused to comply with China’s demand that he renounce official visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Arguing it was a domestic issue, and therefore no business of China’s. We followed this issue extensively on this program at the time. Those of you interested can click through the archived audio files and transcripts for specific references.

Following the traditional pattern, China expressed “Outrage,” and refused to meet with Koizumi. Most of Japan’s political media then accused Koizumi of damaging bilateral relations with China with his stubborn refusal to consider Chinese sensitivity on such issues as official Yasukuni Shrine visits. A theme that endures! To this day, Japan’s political journalists and pundits are likely to say bilateral relations with China were damaged during the Koizumi premiership by Koizumi’s refusal to suspend his official visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Well, that’s part of the story, anyway.

However, Koizumi ignored the Japanese media criticism. And continued to reject Beijing’s Yasukuni-related demand. And did so while managing to maintain his comfortable overall public approval rating. Koizumi sensed that Japan’s attentive public, had tired of that traditional pattern of relations with China. That Japan’s domestic political environment had changed. And changed significantly.

This change in Japan seems to have taken Beijing by surprise. Perhaps because they continued to rely too heavily on their friends in Japan. Not only for information. But for evaluation! An age-old problem. Anyway, China’s central political leadership took a while to realize their traditional method of dealing with Japan had lost its effectiveness. And even after the realization of change had percolated to the top in China, there was little that could be done. As long as Koizumi remained prime minister. Little, that is, that wouldn’t result in considerable loss of face. Were they to back down. Something China’s central political leadership could ill afford. Then, or now!

Shinzo Abe’s arrival at the Kantei was Heaven-sent for Beijing. Chinese diplomats went to work immediately to “normalize” top-level contacts between the two countries. In spite of Abe’s “conservative” reputation. Then, Beijing's expectations rose considerably with Yasuo Fukuda’s assumption of the premiership. Heightened by the efforts of Fukuda’s supporters at the time to portray him as more “pro-China” than his two predecessors. After reading the “pro-China” evaluation in Japan’s political press, Beijing may have been a bit disappointed in Fukuda’s actual performance. When it comes to management of Japan’s relationship with China. Certainly, though, the situation has improved for Beijing since the dark days of the Koizumi era.

And that’s where we find ourselves today. With a more balanced – and I believe, more sustainable – bilateral relationship between these two important Asian nations. Balance that offers hope of genuine cooperation on critical issues such as the East China Sea border demarcation. And mutually advantageous economic relations. With give-and-take expected from both sides. We’ll have to keep an eye on this.

Prime Minister Fukuda’s Thursday Press Conference:

Now let’s turn to what, for me, at least, was a surprising political event in Tokyo yesterday. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s hastily-arranged press conference at the Kantei at 4:00 p.m., Tokyo time. I’ve been able to watch video of this press conference in its entirety. From Fukuda’s opening statements to the end of the question/answer session that followed. Judging from the video, Fukuda seemed different than his previous performances. More like the Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda I remember from years past. Sharper, more confident. And more determined. Almost as if he’d decided to stop playing games. Though his overall demeanor was still pretty rigid. Tighter, as we’d say OverHome, than a bull’s eyes in fly-time. But that’s just the way he is. His message to the assembled Kantei press corps was even more surprising. And quite significant, I think.

Yasuo Fukuda, like most every other elected official, may have wanted to become prime minister. Like his father. But he certainly can’t be accused of campaigning too enthusiastically for the job. Indeed, it’s hard to accuse Yasuo Fukuda of doing anything too enthusiastically! He’s just not that sort of person. Rather, he’s a serious – even studious – hard-working fellow. Blessed with a keen mind and a sharp wit. Who, a few years back, made one of the best chief cabinet secretaries to occupy that office in decades. His record as prime minister, however, has been decidedly mixed.

We’ve considered Fukuda’s performance as prime minister repeatedly on this program. With mostly negative evaluation. This mirrors the public approval ratings of Fukuda and his cabinet as well. Those ratings have dropped steadily during his months in office. Many analysts conclude they’ve now reached a “critical” level. A level below which it would be difficult for Fukuda to maintain his position. Earlier today I looked through as many evaluations of Fukuda’s performance during his first six months in office as I could find. And couldn’t find a single positive assessment. In English, or in Japanese. It certainly can’t be encouraging for him. So it’s not surprising now that it’s become commonplace to read media speculation about his successor as LDP president and prime minister. With Taro Aso leading the pack. More on that issue in a moment.

Against this background, Prime Minister Fukuda’s appearance before the Kantei Press Corps yesterday afternoon is worth considering in some detail. First, the press conference was unexpected. I found no mention of it before around 3:30 p.m., Tokyo time, Thursday. Second, what Fukuda said was even more unexpected.

[audio clip of Fukuda announcing end of road construction earmark]

That was Fukuda announcing that he had decided to end the gasoline tax surcharge’s earmark for road construction. Beginning in FY2009. This earmark has been a critical feature of the “provisional” gasoline tax surcharge since it was created in the 1970s! It insured that revenue from the tax would be collected in a special account that would be used only for road construction projects. Thereby guaranteeing the additional revenue wouldn’t be siphoned off for other worthy purposes. Leaving the construction companies involved in road-building with less work. And the Diet members funded by those construction companies with considerably less leverage when they asked them for more election campaign funds.

Fukuda’s statement Thursday afternoon in Tokyo amounted to no less than a frontal attack on the LDP’s most important Zoku. The “Doro Zoku,” as it’s called in Japanese. Or the Road Construction Zoku, we might call it in English. Comparable to Koizumi’s attack on the postal zoku of years past. Indeed, Koizumi himself had proposed abolition of this gas tax surcharge earmark when he was prime minister. But he was unable to get it through.

The public response of senior LDP members of the road construction zoku was immediate and sharp. They expressed concern over the implications of Fukuda’s decision for local road construction projects. Fear that isolated villages would remain cut off from civilization, and so on. With one senior figure bluntly stating that Fukuda was on his own with this idea, since he’d come up with it himself.

Why Fukuda Decided to End the Road Construction Earmark

Fukuda during his opening statement described his proposal as an attempt to compromise with the DPJ. And added that he hoped this “compromise” would lure the DPJ back to the negotiating table. All of the Japanese political communications media reporting and commentary I’ve since read have accepted that interpretation. But I doubt it.

I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that Fukuda’s decision had little to do with luring Ozawa’s DPJ back into negotiations. He’s given up on them. Had little to do with the DPJ, in fact, or any other Opposition party. Rather, I believe Fukuda was motivated by growing opposition within the LDP to the influence Traditionalist LDP zoku members have exercised over the Party’s policies and actions since Abe’s resignation as prime minister. We’ve discussed the tension between Traditionalists and Reformists within the LDP for some time on this program. Well, here’s concrete evidence that the Reformists have made significant progress.

Prime Minister Fukuda’s position as prime minister and LDP president now is seriously threatened by his declining public approval ratings. Every day seems to bring new articles describing disappointing results of new polls. Ichiro Ozawa and the DPJ have referenced those polls during their demands that Fukuda resign and call a general election. That seems unlikely now, as we discussed last week. But it most certainly is possible that LDP members may demand that Fukuda resign. Without calling a general election. Give way, in other words, to a new LDP president. One more capable of appealing to Japan’s attentive public.

At some point, all incumbent Lower House members will face a general election. If not some time this year, then certainly by next year. At the expiration of their four-year terms. None of them, given a choice, want to conduct their election campaigns under the banner of a discredited, unpopular, Party leader. This is especially true of the Reformist LDP members. Those who campaign for votes through presentation of their positions on critical political issues through the media. Rather than relying on the personalistic and enormously expensive support groups called “koenkai” to collect their votes. They would be better off running as candidates of a “reformist” party of some kind!

It seems to me, then, that Fukuda was persuaded to end the gas tax earmark not by the DPJ. But by the fear of open opposition within the Party from the Reformists. Perhaps even an open rebellion. With a popular Reformist proposed to replace Fukuda as LDP president, and prime minister. Everyone knows Fukuda relied upon the LDP’s senior zoku giin – including the road construction zoku giin – to gain the Party presidency. And it’s likely those Traditionalists will turn against him should he continue to propose measures that threaten their sources of political funding.

But dutiful obedience to the Traditionalists’ policy instructions has contributed significantly to Fukuda’s loss of public support. Made him look indecisive. Even incompetent. A loss that now threatens his very survival as prime minister. Even if Fukuda became prime minister only reluctantly, he has no desire to leave the office as a failure. It’s just possible that he’s finally realized he must side with the Reformists to survive.

We’ll have to watch Prime Minister Fukuda closely from now on. Was this press conference an indication of a change of style? Or was it an isolated aberration? And even if it was a change of style, has it come in time to matter? The next few weeks should tell us. It will be interesting to see how the Traditionalists and the Reformists within the LDP respond. More on all this next week.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re out of time again this week. The minutes go by quickly when there’s so much to consider. Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations never becomes boring! It’s been a while since we’ve heard some inspiring bluegrass. So, here’s a short clip from the early Seldom Scene. From their Act I album, in fact. Featuring the unforgettable John Starling and John Duffey joining voices to lament “The Want of a Woman.” Enjoy …

[Bluegrass Clip]

Goodbye All. Until next week.