A two-horse race to succeed KoizumiThe election to choose a new Japanese leader, now four months away, is turning into a real horse race. Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, once thought to have the inside track, may have a serious challenger in Yasuo Fukuda, 69, once considered a long shot at best. Neither has formally announced.
The election is to fill the position of president of the Liberal Democratic Party, who automatically becomes prime minister when the LDP controls the diet (parliament). The presidency is decided by a vote of the 296 LDP members of the House of Representatives, the 115 LDP members of the House of Councilors and party members.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has served for more than five years, has declined to run for another term as party president. He has been one of Japan's longest-serving leaders and one of the most controversial, primarily because of his regular visits in his official capacity to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial in Tokyo to Japan's fallen soldiers.
Abe is still favored to succeed Koizumi, but numerous public opinion polls show Fukuda's popularity is rising. The emergence of Fukuda is thought to reflect uneasiness in Japan, especially among businessmen, over the damage done to relations with China and South Korea because of the shrine visits.
None of the potential candidates has yet officially declared his candidacy, but Abe has strongly indicated that he will do so as early as next month after the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) major countries in Russia. Fukuda may wait a little longer, watching to see if the current groundswell of support continues to grow before making his candidacy official.
There are several other potential candidates, including such important figures as Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso. They are expected to declare their candidacy after the current session of the diet ends in mid-June, in effect kicking off the LDP election. Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano is also tipped to join the leadership race.
The LDP presidential race seldom revolves around foreign policy, but this year will be an exception. Japan's Asia policy, especially toward China, has emerged as a key issue. On other matters, both Abe and Fukuda are steadfast proponents of keeping Japan's relations with its most important ally, the United States, strong and friendly. Also, there seems to be no significant difference between the two top potential candidates over economic policy.
Koizumi has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A World War II convicted war criminals, including former prime minister Hideki Tojo, are enshrined along with some 2.4 million other war dead, on an annual basis since taking office in 2001. China and South Korea have harshly condemned the visits to the Shinto shrine by Koizumi as glorifying Japan's past militarism.
For nearly a year, top Chinese leaders have shunned Koizumi, refusing to meet with him even during international conferences held in third countries. There are other irritants in Japan's ties with China - and also with South Korea - such as territorial and history-textbook disputes. But the shrine fracas is by far the biggest obstacle to improved ties. Beijing has sent a thinly veiled message repeatedly: without Koizumi, Sino-Japanese relations would be flourishing.
Among the four leading potential candidates, Abe and Aso take a conservative position against China and support the premier's Yasukuni visits. Fukuda and Tanigaki are both regarded as pro-China politicians and have criticized the visits. Abe has hinted that he may continue to visit the controversial shrine after he becomes premier. He said recently, "We should never allow any foreign countries to thrust their noses" into the Yasukuni issue.
For his part, Fukuda has stepped up his rhetoric against Koizumi's shrine visits recently. He proposes establishing a state-run, non-religious memorial to Japan's war dead as an alternative to Yasukuni Shrine. The LDP's junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, is also strongly pushing for the alternative facility. Fukuda is popular among rank-and-file members of New Komeito, although they have no say in the LDP election.
Fukuda visited Seoul along with former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in March and met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who had canceled his planned Japan trip last year and has shown no sign of letting up in attacking Koizumi over the Yasukuni issue. Fukuda's relations with Washington are good. During a recent visit he got a red-carpet welcome, meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as US lawmakers.
This was an unusual amount of attention accorded somebody who is not, at present, even a member of the cabinet (he lost his last position in a reshuffle last year). This series of much-publicized talks, apparently reflected the US administration's recognition of Fukuda as an increasingly strong candidate to succeed Koizumi, and also helped to raise his profile in the run-up to the LDP presidential election.
Abe has proposed strategic dialogue with India, Australia and other democracies in Asia, as well as the United States. He appears to believe that putting such a framework in place would cause China to change its approach to Japan. Meanwhile, Fukuda has stressed the need for Japan to promote ties with Asian neighbors with new initiatives built on the diplomatic principles of his father, Takeo Fukuda, widely known as the Fukuda Doctrine and much appreciated in Asia. Takeo Fukuda was prime minister from late 1976 to 1978.
In a speech in Manila in 1977, the senior Fukuda unveiled the doctrine, which declared that Japan would never become a military power again and would build relations of mutual trust through "heart-to-heart" communication, among other things. The Fukuda Doctrine came at another time of strained relations with China and Asia.
Three years previously, then-prime minister Kakuei Tanaka was greeted by anti-Japanese riots in Thailand and Indonesia during his Southeast Asian tour. Tanaka's trip triggered flare-ups of deep-running anti-Japanese sentiment in these countries, which had been fostered by what was seen as Japan's arrogant behavior as a rapidly rising economic power with growing influence in the region.
On North Korea, too, Abe is known as a hardliner and Fukuda as a moderate. The clash between Fukuda and Abe over North Korea policy was reported a few years ago when Fukuda served as chief cabinet secretary and Abe as his deputy under Koizumi. Abe's hard stance on North Korea, especially over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and early 1980s, has earned him extremely high popularity. Meanwhile, Fukuda stood behind then deputy foreign minister Hitoshi Tanaka even when the latter drew flak over what critics claimed was his too-soft stance toward North Korea.
Another issue with potential Asian implications is reviving Japan's 1947 constitution, written by US occupiers. Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, while prime minister, advocated a complete rewrite. Abe has stated that constitutional amendments should top the agenda of a post-Koizumi cabinet. On the other hand, Fukuda says the postwar pacifist constitution should not be revised hastily. Regarding possible revisions of Article 9, which renounces the use or threat of force as a means of settling international conflicts, Fukuda maintains that it should not result in a situation where other nations are concerned that Japan intends to become a military power again.
Koizumi has boosted Abe's prospects by appointing him the government's chief spokesman, assuring that he is in the public view. By contrast, the colorless Fukuda seemed to have suffered a serious setback when he was left out of the cabinet. Koizumi's decision not to bring Fukuda into his new team was widely seen as a reflection of their delicate personal relationship and differences over foreign policy, especially China.
As Fukuda's treatment shows, Koizumi selected his loyalists to the cabinet and LDP leadership, but many of the old guard, who resisted Koizumi's reform programs such as postal privatization, want to see the "principle of a swinging pendulum" applied to the next leadership election. Fukuda has a reputation as a stable, balanced and consensus-oriented politician, so he is the favorite choice for them after the tumultuous years under Koizumi.
In addition, the relatively old Fukuda would be seen as safe and secure by the elderly party lawmakers, who fear losing their influence through a rapid generation change of party leaders. At 51, Abe is much younger than all three other leading candidates. But support for Abe is strong among junior and middle-ranking party lawmakers, including the large numbers of freshman diet members swept into office in last year's LDP landslide.
The demise of factions
Abe and Fukuda both belong to the biggest LDP faction, chaired by former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, which has more than 80 lawmakers. Tanigaki leads a faction of his own, but it has only 15 members including himself. Aso belongs to an even smaller faction. If either Abe or Fukuda is chosen as Koizumi's successor, he will be the third successive prime minister from the Mori faction. The LDP is still an assemblage of factions, and in the past, contests for party leadership were power struggles among factions.
But Koizumi's first election as LDP president in 2001 and his re-election in 2003 demonstrated that party factions and their bosses have lost their clout significantly in the leadership selection process as well. LDP factions in general are in the jaws of death, though they still exist in name, and most faction members are no longer that loyal to their bosses. In the next LDP presidential election, party factions overall will not play a key role as they did before Koizumi took office.
The schism between Koizumi and his longtime ally, Mori, apparently emerged in the past month. In early May, Koizumi said "it would be no problem" if both Abe and Fukuda entered the LDP presidential race. By saying this, Koizumi blocked Mori's plan to select a single factional candidate. Mori had insisted that doing so was essential for the sake of factional unity. Koizumi apparently favors Abe as his successor, while Mori apparently favors Fukuda. Mori wants the relatively young Abe to become a leader of Japan some day, but not this year.
Mori went so far as to criticize Koizumi's Yasukuni pilgrimages harshly. Mori said recently, "If improving the present relations [between Japan and China] is important, then it would be better not to visit." He said the next prime minister should think about the Yasukuni issue from a wider perspective.
"The prime minister has said [Yasukuni] is an issue of the heart, but it has become a political issue," Mori said. "It has not been a plus for Japan's national interests."
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]