September 14, 2008; Volume 04, Number 26

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Fukuda’s Resignation Announcement
A Shocking Surprise?
So What?
Fukuda’s Objectives
But if not that, then what?
But How To Realize That Objective?
Taro Aso’s Role In All of This?
The Consequences of Fukuda’s Resignation Statement
Concluding Comments

Good Afternoon. From the Piedmont Region of South Carolina. At the beautiful Lake Wateree State Park. Today is Sunday, September 14th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 26, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Back again in the Mobile Studio. Parked right on the western shore of Lake Wateree. It’s hard to imagine a better camping spot. Though it’s too hot and humid here to be outside this afternoon. So I’m grateful for the Mobile Studio’s air conditioning. You may be able to hear it humming in the background. Sorry about that. Can’t be helped! The weather’s been a little breezy. With just a few clouds in the sky. The NOAA emergency weather broadcast warns of possible thunderstorms. But nothing like that so far. We’ve been lucky, compared to folks in and around Texas. And this state park and its lake are just beautiful! No excuse not to do a podcast today.

Speaking of weather, Japan has had its share of unpredictable, or unexpected, political weather since our last program. Perhaps not storms as serious as they’ve been described in the international media. But some surprises nonetheless. Specifically, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s announcement on Monday, the 1st that he intends to resign the premiership. And the repercussions of that announcement. Japan’s political media has been full of little else since. As you might imagine.

Lots going on too in international affairs for Japan. Some of it quite important. But all that will have to wait. This week we really must focus on Fukuda’s resignation announcement, and its significance for politics in Japan, both domestically and internationally. It really does matter!

Since Monday morning, U.S. time, when the news of the resignation arrived here, I’ve been considering Fukuda’s announcement from every imaginable angle. Reading everything available  on the subject in English and in Japanese. And talking with informed observers in both the United States and in Japan. Thank heaven for Skype, by the way. A real budget-saver when it comes to long-distance calling!

As a result of all this digging around, my interpretation of the significance of Fukuda’s resignation is somewhat different than what appears to have developed as consensus opinion in Japan’s political media. The consensus that’s developed, at least, for the past couple of weeks. Which, as usual, has been reflected pretty much “as-is” in the English language foreign reporting about Japan. So, let’s get right to all this, and see what we can make of it.

Fukuda’s Resignation Announcement

[Insert Sound Clip]

That’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announcing his decision to resign the premiership. It was an impressive performance in some ways. A disappointing performance in others. Overall, it was a little puzzling. At least to me.

Fukuda met the Kantei Press Corps in the regular press briefing room of the Kantei, or Prime Minister’s Official Residence. At around 9:30 p.m., Tokyo time, on Monday, the 1st. That’s 8:30 Monday morning here on the U.S. East Coast.

It appears that even the Kantei Press Corps had only a few minutes’ notice of the event. Judging from the time stamps on the various wire service reports released before, during, and after the event. And that’s unusual.

I’d been on the internet, reading political and international news from Japan, as usual, Monday morning. Until around 90 minutes before Fukuda’s press conference began. There wasn’t any indication such an important event was being planned. Monday, you may recall, was a holiday in the U.S. Labor Day. So openings were delayed and I had a late start. By the time I returned, and was back on line, around 10:30 a.m., the floodgates had opened.

Every major media outlet with an Internet presence in Japan – and that’s most of ‘em – carried brief items reporting Fukuda’s “surprising,” even “shocking,” announcement. And soon, video and audio clips of the press conference were popping up on the Net. It was some time, though, before I was able to watch video of the full performance. Watching long videos takes a lot of extra time when something important has happened. But it’s time I’ve found well spent when trying to assess the significance of such events. Fukuda’s press conference was quite a show!

A disappointing show, in many ways. Since Fukuda spent much of his opening statement complaining about how difficult it had been for him to carry out his responsibilities as prime minister because of the “twisted Diet.” Complaining about how uncooperative and disruptive Ichiro Ozawa and his Democratic Party of Japan had been since he assumed office. And even hinting at how little support he’d received from those political figures who might have been expected to support him! So, that part of the press conference was something of a disappointment.

Fukuda also was very sharp – almost what my grandmother would have described as “snippy” – with the journalists who had to ask questions following his statement. Even telling one poor soul at the end of the press conference that he, Fukuda, could be objective about himself. Something the journalist himself couldn’t do. I mean!

Really unnecessary. Even unbecoming. But this was vintage Fukuda. He’s always been a difficult interview subject for journalists. Even when he was Chief Cabinet Secretary. However. Fukuda’s style was one thing. Timing was another. And in politics, as the phrase goes, “timing is everything.” Fukuda’s timing of the announcement, at least to me, was impressive. A master stroke that must have been carefully planned.

A Shocking Surprise?

From the beginning, Japan’s political media described Fukuda’s announcement as a complete surprise. Even a shock! With the international media, of course, taking up the theme. Describing Japan’s national politics as jumbled and unpredictable. Two short-term prime ministers now. Both unable to cope with the problems facing them. Hard to tell what’s going to happen! And so on. Hmmm.

All of this seems odd to me. Perhaps the exact timing of the announcement came as a surprise. The exact day and hour. And perhaps the Kantei press club journalists were miffed. Felt slighted. Since they’d been given so little notice that Fukuda was about to make an important announcement. And perhaps they were irked that he chose to do so at 9:30 p.m. on a Monday night.

But the notion that Japan’s political press was genuinely surprised – let alone shocked! – to learn that Fukuda had decided to resign the premiership comes as a shock to me! Really, it’s hard to believe.

After all, Japan’s political media had been predicting just that for months now! Some of them even demanding that Fukuda resign right away! Everyone in Japan knew Fukuda’s resignation was just a matter of time. A matter of timing. And thought it more likely to come sooner than later.

Sooo, the notion that Fukuda’s announcement of his decision to resign came as a surprise to Japan’s political journalists just didn’t ring true to me. It simply couldn’t have been! The exact day and hour weren’t know, of course. But that’s no surprise either. Or shouldn’t be. Fukuda wasn’t likely to discuss such a critical decision with even his most trusted advisers. Let alone with the political press! 

Still, even after that first 24 hours of understandably rushed initial coverage, Japan’s political journalists continued to write articles describing how surprised and shocked they were. About how “irresponsible” Fukuda had been to make such a sudden decision. Describing Fukuda’s decision as a “spur-of-the-moment” sort of thing. With efforts in nearly every media outlet to compare Fukuda to Shinzo Abe, his immediate predecessor. Suggesting that Fukuda’s decision was impulsive, reckless, and ill-considered. AND, that Fukuda didn’t even have Abe’s excuse of poor health.

Japan’s political journalists then scurried around to do some selective interviewing. Concentrating on folks willing to agree with that assessment. First, Opposition Party members. A no-brainer. They’ve been seriously disadvantaged by the timing, to put it politely. And are supposed to be “the opposition,” after all. But they also scraped up political commentators. And even businessmen. Willing to describe Fukuda as “irresponsible” for resigning the premiership in the way he did.

Even Japan’s political cartoonists got in on the act. With cartoons that compared Fukuda with Abe. To the disadvantage of both. Usually as naughty boys, playing some game. By the end of the week, both Fukuda and Abe had become in Japan’s political media similar, egocentric LDP princelings. Who found the rough-and-tumble of the political game at the very top beneath their dignity. Implying they both had abandoned their weighty public responsibilities recklessly. Further, by the end of the week, conventional wisdom in Japan had Fukuda making his decision independently. On his own. With even his closest advisers and aides kept in the dark until the last minute! Just like the Kantei Press Corps had been kept in the dark, I guess …..

This too seems most unlikely to me. Of course, if asked, Fukuda’s staff and closest political associates would be unlikely to admit they knew about his decision to resign. As is usually the case, those who actually know, won’t talk. And those willing to talk, don’t really know what they’re talking about. And are guessing, at best. It’s an old story. Familiar to anyone with information collection responsibilities and experience.

Sooo, I don’t want to appear gratuitously critical here. But little of this whole scenario rings true to me. 

So What?

But! Does it really matter? The whole thing’s done and over with. We’re now in the midst of the “campaign” to select a new president for the Liberal Democratic Party. A person very likely to become Japan’s next prime minister. Given the super-majority the LDP has in Japan’s Lower House of the parliament. So, is this “old news” worth bothering about?

Well, yes, I think it is. Obviously, I think it is, or I wouldn’t be spending this much time discussing it! But why?

Its significance extends, I think, well beyond Prime Minister Fukuda’s personal reputation. That’s his problem. Rather, I think a more accurate explanation of Fukuda’s actions on Monday night, the 1st, will help us better understand what’s really going on at the apex of Japan’s national political system. Help us to better understand the effort to select Fukuda’s successor as LDP president, and Japan’s prime minister. And help us to better understand what’s actually going on these days within Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Maybe, even give us a better understanding of the future of Japan’s post-1955 System political party system, for that matter. If Fukuda, didn’t simply get so sick of the pulling-and-hauling inevitable in the office of prime minister that he decided on the spur of the moment to quit. And instead, made a carefully calculated tactical move with the timing and staging of his resignation, we need to understand just what it was that he was trying to accomplish!

Fukuda’s Objectives

So, bear with me for a moment, as I wander off the well-beaten path of political explanation here. Looking for another trail through the vines and thickets. One that may take us more quickly to our destination. As usual, my effort here isn’t to predict future events. I’m just not that smart. And I’d charge a whole lot more for the product, if I was! Rather, I’m just trying to make better sense of the events we’ve all observed. In order to better understand their “whys” and “therefores.”

First off, just what was Prime Minister Fukuda trying to accomplish with his Monday, September 1st, 9:30 p.m., surprise announcement? If it wasn’t just to rid himself of a job that had become tiresome. Why did he do it? And why did he do it in just the way that he did?

I don’t believe personal frustration had much at all to do with it. I don’t believe personal resentment of the failure of opposition party leaders, or even members of the LDP or New Komeito, had much to do with it either. True, the tone of his opening statement at the press conference could charitably be labeled “whiney.” He did complain about all of that. That’s what he said! Some of it probably was sincere. And he’s done it before, of course.

But Yasuo Fukuda is an experienced politician. He’s viewed the game from a variety of angles for a very long time. Perhaps the best Chief Cabinet Secretary Japan has ever had. And that, arguably, is a job even harder that prime minister! Fukuda’s been both a direct participant, and an observer from a privileged seat in the stands. As former prime minister and LDP faction leader Takeo Fukuda’s eldest son. He certainly knew what to expect. So I doubt that much of his experience as prime minister really surprised him. No, it’s not at all likely that eruption of accumulated personal resentments explains his actions. He didn’t just “snap,” in other words.

But if not that, then what?

But if that’s not the explanation, what is? Well, I believe Prime Minister Fukuda was motivated primarily by his desire to maintain the Liberal Democratic Party in its current, Traditional, form. That is, as a Party with a very comfortable, reliable, majority in both houses of the Diet. But as a Party controlled by its parliamentary elite. Organized into traditional parliamentary factions. As a Party with top-level leadership less vulnerable to the whims of public opinion. Even attentive public opinion. And more dependent upon the support of Party faction leaders. As a Party with effective cooperative relationships with Japan’s national bureaucracies.

In other words, as much as possible, the Traditional LDP we’ve known throughout the decades since its formation in 1955. The pre-Koizumi LDP, that is.

That, I believe, was Fukuda’s most important objective.

But How To Realize That Objective?

That’s an objective more easily stated than accomplished. Even with the LDP now enjoying its largest majority ever in the Lower House. We’ve considered this problem since the beginning of this program in late 2005. How Japan’s domestic political environment and international environment have changed. Requiring the LDP to adapt to those changes in order to survive. Yasuo Fukuda, I imagine, would agree with this. Though he’d be unlikely to accept its consequences enthusiastically.  

Judging from his statements about “political theater,” and his actions, it appears that Fukuda disapproves of the way his predecessor’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, addressed the problem. For Fukuda, the LDP members we’ve labeled “Reformists” on this program, including Koizumi, have gone too far with their reform efforts. They’ve abandoned basic principles that Fukuda considers essential to maintenance of the LDP’s character. And they need to be brought back into line, so to speak.

But, that too is easier said than done! Fukuda’s most immediate political challenge doesn’t come from the main Opposition Party, the DPJ. With Ichiro Ozawa as its Party president, the DPJ seems to be nicely managing its own disintegration. With no need for help from the outside. Rather, Fukuda’s most immediate political challenge comes from within the LDP. His own Party!

The usually unspoken, but widely recognized, danger the LDP’s Reformists will give up on efforts to reform the LDP, and bolt the Party. Making common cause with similarly oriented reformists from the DPJ and other parties. Eventually gaining parliamentary majority status. Such a defection would leave the LDP in distressing circumstances.

Sooo, how best to discourage the LDP’s Reformists from bolting without turning management of the Party over to them and their Popularist ways? That, I believe, has been the 64 dollar question facing Fukuda since his arrival in the Kantei. And that objective, I believe, is what motivated the timing of Fukuda’s resignation announcement.

Taro Aso’s Role In All of This?

Now, if my supposition is correct. If Fukuda recognizes the danger of the LDP’s Reformists bolting the Party as his most immediate political challenge, how does the current LDP presidential frontrunner, Taro Aso, fit into all of this? What is the real relationship between those two very different senior LDP figures?

In early August, Prime Minister Fukuda reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Taro Aso LDP secretary general. This generated a wave of rumors within Japan’s political media. Suggestions that Fukuda persuaded Aso to accept the secretary generalship by agreeing to resign the premiership sooner rather than later. Making way for Aso to succeed him. Hmmm.

Political commentators are on pretty safe ground when they speculate on secret deals between senior politicians. The parties involved can be relied upon to deny the allegation. Whether they’re true or not! Everyone expects it. And “You’re next” sorts of promises from past LDP presidents assuming the premiership haven’t usually worked out as the expectant successor had been led to hope.

This one, however, may be an exception. I don’t know if Yasuo Fukuda made such an arrangement with Taro Aso or not. But, as of today, anyway, it looks as if that will be the way things work out. Fukuda was selected by the LDP caucus as the Traditionalists’ best hope following Abe’s unexpected resignation. Fukuda failed to turn Japan’s national parliamentary system around through traditionalist means. Then Fukuda reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Taro Aso as secretary general. While allowing Makoto Koga to maintain his position as the LDP’s election czar. Something it would have been difficult for Aso to accept under normal conditions. Aso and Koga are not the closest of political friends, it should be noted.

Then Fukuda’s “sudden and unexpected” announcement of his intention to resign the premiership on September 1st. Not long at all after reshuffling his cabinet. Described almost universally in Japan’s political press as a reckless, unexpected, selfish move. Hmmm.

The Consequences of Fukuda’s Resignation Statement

Well … What’s happened as a result? It now appears that Taro Aso will win the LDP presidential election on the first ballot. Capturing a majority of the votes cast by the LDP’s prefectural branches. And a majority of the votes cast by the LDP’s Lower and Upper House members. He will assume the LDP presidency, and immediately thereafter, Japan’s premiership, as a “popular” leader.

The LDP will have, then, a leader who enjoys a strong public approval rating. At least in the beginning. But will he prove to be a genuine Reformist? A leader intent upon reshaping the LDP into the sort of Party that its Reformist members believe it must become to survive? Or will Aso prove to be a Traditionalist leader, intent upon maintaining the LDP’s traditional structure? But a traditionalist with higher public approval ratings? Hard to tell.

Taro Aso certainly didn’t begin his political career as a nationally popular figure. He’s been very much an acquired taste, as they say, since first winning election to the Lower House. In fact, during a press interview some years ago, Aso described himself as Japan’s most hated politician! But for the past several years, Aso has been making great efforts to change his national public image. Recognizing, I think, that public approval has become much more important than it used to be for those aspiring to occupy the biggest chair in Japan’s Kantei. Given changes in Japan’s domestic political environment. Think of the personal sacrifice! All of that travel. All of those speeches! Having to read all of those comic books! And to remember their silly names! That’s worse than having to memorize the lyrics of Elvis Presley songs!!

Could it be that Fukuda too recognized the importance of high public approval ratings in Japan’s current domestic political environment. Recognized that he simply didn’t have what it took to achieve, let alone maintain, those ratings. And identified Aso as the senior figure within the LDP who enjoyed high public approval, but who at the same time, was most likely to resist, or at least blunt, the radical demands of the LDP’s Reformists?

Stranger things have happened! Certainly the timing of Fukuda’s resignation made Aso’s assumption of the LDP presidency and premiership a much better bet. Also, it made it possible for the next prime minister to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election sooner rather than later. With a much more popular leader at the head of the LDP ticket. Something Fukuda himself must have known he couldn’t afford to do.

This earlier-than-expected general election, then, would greatly reduce the possibility that any significant number of the LDP’s Reformists would bolt the LDP to form their own Party before the general election. Running as Reformists rather than LDP members. It would have bought some time, in other words. To try to re-jigger things within the LDP enough to keep the Reformists aboard ship. At least for a while.

And it inconvenienced the major opposition party, the DPJ. Which, in spite of their contrary public protestations, has no interest in a general election before the end of the calendar year. Especially one in which they have to run Rengo-organization-backed candidates against opponents supported by a more popular LDP and New Komeito. An LDP led by Taro Aso rather than Yasuo Fukuda. 

Concluding Comments

This is a far more complex – even convoluted – explanation of Yasuo Fukuda’s actions on the night of September 1st. And in politics, as in science, simpler explanations are better than complex explanations. But in this case, I think the simpler explanation that Yasuo Fukuda simply got fed up and quit is – well …. Flat wrong. Not just wrong, but misleading. Camouflaging what’s really going on within the LDP these days. And, more important, what the consequences of these events are for the future of Japan’s national electoral system.

That’s all we have time for today. So,

Goodbye all. Until next time.