New Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has promised a more conciliatory approach to politics than his predecessor after his first week in the job. Fukuda has committed to keeping dialogue open with the media with twice daily interviews, town meetings and an email magazine. He also wants to engage in dialogue with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to solve the current political impasse. His predecessor Shinzo Abe had antagonised the press and resigned over his failure to win support for an extension of a controversial anti-terrorism law.
The 71 year old Fukuda is a political survivor. He is the country’s longest serving chief cabinet secretary (between 2000 and 2004) and follows in the footsteps of his late father Takeo Fukuda who was Prime Minister between 1976 and 1978. Fukuda (the son) initially worked in private industry but moved into backroom politics during his father’s reign as premier. He was elected into parliament in 1990. He slowly worked his way up to Chief Cabinet Secretary until he was brought down in a purge after a major political scandal about the Japanese pension system.
Fukuda was approached to run for leadership last year after Junichiro Koizumi stepped down but he decided to leave the field clear for Shinzo Abe to take the leadership. Fukuda has now promised to use his negotiating skills to win approval for extending Tokyo's contentious mission in support of US troops in Afghanistan. Currently Japanese naval vessels refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean. The mission has been going since 2001, and Washington has called publicly for Tokyo to renew its commitment. The US joined a delegation of 11 nations that has called on Japan to “continue its important contribution” in Afghanistan.
Many in Japan think the ruling government’s support for the refuelling goes against the intent of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, the so-called ‘anti belligerence’ clause. The first sentence of the article reads in part “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. The clause was included in the American-written Japanese constitution in 1947 and has never been modified. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was closely associated with a push to renew the Afghan mandate but was opposed by the Democratic Party of Japan.
He resigned suddenly on 12 September. Officially Abe said he resigned to expedite the end to a political stalemate caused by Afghan crisis and the defeat of the ruling coalition in the July Upper House elections. But many observers questioned how exactly Abe’s resignation will resolve the issue. This has led to speculation as to other possibilities to why he stood aside. Some aides have hinted of a health problem and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano said Abe has been in “constant agony” lately. But there may be a second cause. There is talk in Japanese political circles that an upcoming story in the weekly tabloid Shukan Gendai will expose a ¥300 million inheritance tax evasion by Abe.
If this is true, it is just one more example of financial impropriety in Japan’s upper political echelons. Even new Prime Minister Fukuda is not immune. On Friday he was forced to admit reports that a political support group in his constituency crossed off its name on receipts and instead attributed the receipts to the ruling party's local chapter. Fukuda denied it was deliberate evasion but instead merely “sloppy accounting”. But the news does not bode well for a cleaner financial future. For now Fukuda is acting humble in the hope of riding the storm. "It has nothing to do with making a profit or financial wrongdoing," he said. "But as the head of the office I really feel ashamed."