Monday, October 1, 2007

The end of Abe politics (for now)

Prime Minister Fukuda delivered his maiden speech to the Diet this afternoon, reopening legislative business after an unscheduled three-week abeyance.

If Mr. Fukuda was trying to differentiate himself from his successor, he succeeded admirably. Mr. Abe's way of politics was not just ideological, but inflexibly ideological. For Mr. Abe, it was always "my way or the highway" — but, perhaps to his surprise, it was the Japanese people who told him to beat it. Mr. Fukuda will, as expected, not be nearly as intransigent. (Sankei says exactly this, noting that Mr. Fukuda's "color" will be different from both Mr. Koizumi's "theatrical politics" and Mr. Abe's conservatism.)

The speech — available here — redounds with what will be the cardinal themes of the Fukuda cabinet: trust, sincerity, cooperation, reform.

The longest sections, perhaps not surprisingly, concern social inequalities and foreign policy.

On the inequality between urban and rural Japan, Mr. Fukuda acknowledges the existence of a "vicious cycle" whereby rural regions have stagnated economically, making them less attractive to the young, which has perpetuated economic stagnation and "grayed" whole regions of the country. He committed his government to accelerate studies of how to regenerate the regions, including transferring more tax authority and considering the agglomeration of prefectures into seven or nine super-prefectures (from forty-seven). And he acknowledged the importance of protecting small farmers and small- and medium-sized businesses — traditional pillars of LDP support — but was short on the how. Something tells me that the denizens of the shuttered shopping streets visited by Mr. Fukuda during the LDP presidential campaign are hungering for something more than words, although Mr. Fukuda's acknowledgment of the problem is a step above Mr. Abe. At the same time, however, he reaffirmed once again his commitment to reform — so it remains to be seen how he proposes to go about solving the "light and shadow" problem with reform, discussed at length in this article (two parts) in Genron NPO by Kato Koichi.

On foreign policy, he called attention to Japan's role in supporting the peace of the world, and highlighted the MSDF mission in the Indian Ocean and the North Korea problems as his government's highest priority foreign policy problems. On the former, he called attention to requests from the UN and countries participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan that Japan extend its mission — and said, "I will expend all my energy explaining to the people and the Diet the importance of continuing the mission without a break, in order to receive their understanding." On the latter, he waffled, talking about the importance of the six-party talks to the peace of the region, but also speaking of the importance of ensuring that all the abductees are returned home. In other words, he ducked the looming question of whether Japan will actually begin playing a constructive role in the talks as they move ahead.

The rest of the foreign policy section was spent reassuring others. To the US, he pledged to strengthen bilateral trust in the relationship. To the people of Okinawa, he pledged to listen to their opinions on the realignment of US forces. To China, he pledged to continue the strategic relationship grounded in shared interests, and to South Korea, he pledged to forge a more trusting relationship in the near future. To ASEAN, he pledged greater economic cooperation, and to the WTO, he pledged to work towards a compromise that concludes the Doha Round. And he renewed the Japanese government's campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

While the speech is about as vague as Mr. Abe's maiden speech to the Diet around this time last year, there is no question that Mr. Fukuda's priorities are wholly different from Mr. Abe's. Mr. Abe's vision of a "beautiful Japan" was delusional, and created a false impression internationally of a vigorous, energetic Japan rising. Mr. Fukuda acknowledges the reality of contemporary Japan as a deeply insecure place, whose people are worried about the future of their society and their livelihoods as they age. He doesn't seem to have many concrete answers for how to deal with those insecurities, but acknowledging that said insecurities exist is an important first step. He also recognizes that Japanese society has to change, and that change doesn't mean going backward, a recognition sure to make conservatives in the LDP apoplectic. He said, for example, "I am wrestling with the implementation of a 'men and women joint-participation society' in which all individuals, both men and women, can utilize their abilities and personalities and share joys and responsibilities. In this society [women] will be able to take sufficient maternity leave and then return to work, so to maintain an environment in which children can be born and raised safely." Not exactly a radical vision compared to innovations that have been implemented in workplaces in other developed countries, but it's radical enough for an LDP prime minister.

This is a good reminder of what Mr. Fukuda faces as he moves forward. He not only has to try to cooperate with a DPJ that has given few signs of wanting to cooperate, but he will likely have to fend off attacks from ideologues in his own party, who — as MTC reminds us — are still in fighting spirit, perhaps even more than ever after their man was hounded from the Kantei. (Undoubtedly, they will be raging about the absence of a mention of constitution revision in Mr. Fukuda's address; indeed, after a year of Mr. Abe, it's strange to see a policy address that, however vague, actually discusses matters of national concern.) In case anyone needs a reminder that the LDP's conservatives are still ready for action, bear in mind that Mr. Aso has already begun touring the country to build up grassroots support for his next run for the LDP presidency.

Whether or not Mr. Fukuda lasts long enough to make any progress on solving Japan's problems, it is refreshing to have a prime minister who is both aware of what the country's problems really are and willing to admit that he doesn't have all the answers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the economic gap between rural and urban areas have you seen any reports or innovations to exploit the internet and other modern communication advances which Japan has pioneered? The US attempted to encourage the development of a telecommunications commuting infrastructure during the nineties but because of the slowness in developing broadband connections, the rapid onset of globalization and offshoring of IT jobs to India, has largely destroyed this source of new jobs.