Junichuro Koizumi was a tough act to follow. As Prime Minister of Japan, this charismatic conservative greatly strengthened his country’s alliance with America through a personal friendship with President Bush and as active a participation in the War on Terror as Japan’s pacifist Constitution would allow. While controversial, Koizumi also let it be known that a Communist Chinese-dominated Asia was unacceptable and laid the groundwork for a coalition of Pacific powers that could defend the Republic of China at Taiwan and contain Beijing’s influence. Domestically, Koizumi risked rebellion within his own party by attacking the bureaucracy and successfully privatizing the massive Postal System (which, in Japan, includes much of government services). What’s more, Koizumi was a real character. With a mane of gray hair that can only really be compared to Andrew Jackson’s, Koizumi was known for crooning the famous hits of Elvis Presley on cue. In 2001, as Prime Minister, he released a popular album of his favorite tunes by ‘the King’ – and during his last official visit to the United States (in which I had the opportunity to partially participate), President Bush took him to Graceland, where Koizumi got a tour of his own personal Mecca led by Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie.
Koizumi did all of this while retaining enormous popularity. His mandate in 2001 included an 85% approval rating. In 2005, his party took one of the largest majorities in Japanese history – and the Diet eventually passed 82 of 91 proposed bills. He retired at the top of his game – and many, including myself, had high expectations for his successor, Shinzo Abe.
Too high, it seems. Initially, Abe seemed to be doing well, downplaying his hawkish image by making his first trip abroad to China, rather than to the traditional country of choice, the United States. Abe retained a strident stance against a nuclear North Korea, and indeed, he had the right ideas, particularly in foreign policy, where his ultimate goal was widely speculated as the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution and the formation of a quadrilateral alliance between the US, Japan, Australia, and India. But Abe was not as charismatic or nimble as Koizumi. His personal blunders – as well as those of his Cabinet – proved to be his undoing. Abe made a controversial claim about the sex slaves of Japanese soldiers during World War II, and only apologized once the damage was done. One of his ministers committed suicide rather than be implicated in a corruption probe – only to be replaced by someone with a similarly suspicious background who would also resign. Another claimed that there were benefits to the US dropping nuclear bombs on Japan – not, you might imagine, a very popular position in that country. Worst, Abe’s party lost big in the upper house elections that occurred – and the opposition party seized their biggest margin since its creation.
Fairly quickly thereafter, Abe resigned, and he was soon replaced by Yasuo Fukuda, who recently appeared in Washington with President Bush. Fukuda has sought a more reconciliatory approach than either of his two immediate predecessors: he has a significantly moderated view on foreign policy, and has reached out to the members of his party purged by Koizumi for being insufficiently welcome to government privatization. In doing so, Fukuda potentially disastrously undermines the Koizumi legacy. While he cannot act with as free a hand as Koizumi did given his lack of comparative popularity and the opposition’s power in the Diet, Fukuda could still demonstrate stronger backbone as Japan’s premier. Recently, Japan’s opposition succeeded in withdrawing Japanese refueling of American and Coalition forces in the Indian Ocean, even with Fukuda attempting to water down the original mission.
The Japanese economy is the second strongest in the world, and as East Asia becomes an increasingly dangerous place, the country badly needs normalization. Based on his actions thus far, however, I am not at all sure that Fukuda is the man to do it. His tenure has been marked by a defensiveness borne of political temerity: Fukuda’s men govern relative to the opposition party, never seizing the initiative themselves, instead choosing a reactive route. If tensions in the Japanese-American alliance are to be relieved — and, insofar is this is one of our strongest relationships, they must be — Fukuda must begin to demonstrate some Koizumi flare. And resolve.