BANGKOK POST Wednesday October 17, 2007
ANALYSIS / JAPAN'S POLITICS
LDP adapts to heal wounds of July
Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trying to right itself by moving away from the right
By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
Mukade, as the centipede is known in Japan, are ubiquitous in the lushest parts of the verdant archipelago. The hard-shelled arthropod can inflict a painful sting on anything that gets too close to its pincers, especially when cornered. But even after capture, the mukade is notoriously hard to vanquish. Merely stepping on it will not do the job. You need a serious pair of scissors. Only when ripped asunder does the beast cease to resist.
The centipede provides a model of adaptation and persistence that anticipates, by several million years at least, samurai notions of hard-shelled toughness and the ruthless guarding of turf.
During the rainy season this year, the long-enduring Liberal Democratic Party of Japan came very close to being cut to pieces after a devastating defeat in the polls, followed by the humiliating retreat of a hard-line prime minister who rolled himself up into a protective ball and hid from public view when the going got tough.
Shinzo Abe, the cosseted scion of a political dynasty groomed for prominence from birth; Shinzo Abe, the champion of right-wing invective and the master of subtly cruel innuendo, complained at the time of his self-inflicted demise that politics was tougher than he thought.
In contrast to the emotional highs and lows of Mr Abe's short tenure, the newly installed Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is a competent, low-key politician who is really hard to dislike. If you told him he didn't have any personality he would probably agree with you; it is precisely this genial agreeableness that makes him useful as a party unifier after the polemics of Mr Abe's rule. The ultimate team player, though in every way Mr Abe's senior, Mr Fukuda had shrewdly withdrawn from running against Mr Abe last year both for the sake of party unity and as a gesture toward a multi-generational family friendship.
Taro Aso, the runner-up to Mr Fukuda in the inner party race, is, in contrast, naturally combative, controversial and careless in speech; not at all what the LDP needs to heal itself at this juncture.
I watched Mr Fukuda and Mr Aso debate at the height of their campaign during an unexpectedly generous whistle-stop at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Tokyo, where the questions were pointed and eligible voters few. What was most striking, aside from two very different conversational styles _ Mr Aso the raspy, straight-talking populist versus Mr Fukuda, the mild-manner party bureaucrat whose voice barely broke the level of a whisper _ was that they held confusingly similar views on most topics.
But on closer examination there was method to that maddening lack of clarity.
With the possible exception of the Yasukuni issue _ where Mr Fukuda's upfront statement about refusing to visit represents a clean break from the deliberately provocative stance of Junichiro Koizumi and the deliberately ambiguous but essentially unapologetic stance of Mr Aso, which echoes that of Mr Abe _ the two men could have been peas in a pod. And in a real way they are, as veterans of the same old party.
Mr Aso's run for prime minister never really threatened Mr Fukuda's chance of getting the nod but created sufficient political spectacle and democratic spirit to take the wind out of the sails of the LDP's real opponent, Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who had held the initiative and political high ground for much of the summer, but failed to foil Mr Fukuda's political jujitsu.
It's no exaggeration to say that the LDP heaved a heavy sigh of relief when Mr Fukuda took over the helm from the mysteriously absent and weirdly unassertive Mr Abe who had reportedly thrown in the towel due to intestinal distress.
One can only imagine the political bickering and crafty manoeuvring in smoky rooms behind the scenes at which the wounded, staggering LDP found the gumption to suddenly re-invent itself.
Like any well-designed bureaucracy, the LDP owes its existence to individuals, but it also has a will to survive that extends beyond any particular individual member. When Mr Ozawa's insurgent drive showed itself to be dangerously out of touch with what people were really thinking, the party did what it had to do, cutting its losses and changing tack.
So Mr Abe's name is mud, despite the political blue blood that flows in his veins. And Mr Abe's like-thinking associate Mr Aso, who by virtue of factional clout and service to the party might otherwise have been the party's first choice for the top job, had to reconcile himself to the fact that it was in the LDP's best interest that he lose.
And in Japan's best interest too. There was palpable relief across the media when Mr Fukuda won. For whatever Mr Fukuda lacks in charisma, it is compensated by the perception that he is wise and willing to compromise. For whatever militant ideology he lacks, it is compensated by his political skills for getting things done more or less as they always have been done.
From newspaper coverage to Sunday talk shows on TV, one could detect visible optimism that with the change of guard, Japan could now put World War Two back in the past where it belongs, and address more pressing social problems of the present and near future.
Mr Koizumi got away with politically provocative but essentially naive comments about international relations because he had the dramatic flair to wow an audience.
In contrast, the dour Mr Abe brought uncertainty to everything he touched. He frittered away valuable political capital inherited from Mr Koizumi by re-imagining World War Two all over again and losing all over again. Whether it be in regard to the criminality of war criminals, or the degree to which comfort women ''comforted'' voluntarily or the mandated textbook changes including deletions that threatened to take the history of Okinawa out of the hands of those hurt most by that sorry chapter of Japan's history, Mr Abe was tone-deaf and ideologically rigid to a fault.
Japanese democracy, however imperfect and indirectly expressed, made a big breakthrough with the nationwide rejection of the ruling LDP in the Upper House elections in July. The July upset conveyed a message as clear as the last mid-term elections in the US; people are sick and tired of war talk and want politicians to focus on social issues, not warfare, real and imagined. On both sides of the Pacific, the people have said no to grandiose top-down ideologies that treat the common man as cannon fodder for ill-conceived causes.
The people of Japan are inheritors of a twin tradition, as proponents of a terrible war and as victims of a terrible war. Japan's peace movement, born in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is powerful and not easily deterred. They have nurtured a war-renouncing constitution and citizen peace tradition almost unique in the world, and they have played a key role keeping Japan peaceful and at peace for six decades.
The pacifists have spoken quietly and firmly and the message is simple: keep the peace.
Mr Fukuda may consort with right-wingers and may depend on some of them for political capital, but he is hypoallergenic in comparison to the dirty politicians who propagate viruses of hate and nationalistic divisiveness.
If Mr Fukuda is to achieve anything at all, he must keep the rightists at bay, otherwise, the Japanese body politic will suffer yet another allergic reaction to the pathogens of revisionism in his party.
Given the setbacks and debacles of Mr Abe's singularly clumsy year of rule, the Mikado's mukade has taken a necessary corrective to prevent it from veering further off course.
A centipede can lose a few feet and still feed itself, navigating the forest floor as before. To the consternation of Mr Ozawa and other LDP foes, ready and waiting with scissors in hand to pounce on a dazed and disoriented political machine, the writhing creature has some life in it yet.
The multi-footed and functionally segmented LDP political machine is in the process of righting itself by moving away from the right. It is crawling its way out of danger, one step at a time, doing what it was designed to do and still does best, which is to say, surviving, marching forward, despite daunting odds.
Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator