TCS Daily

Life After Koizumi

By Jason Miks - March 14, 2006 12:00 AM

Just six months after securing a surprisingly comprehensive victory in last year's general election, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is already having to contemplate life after Junichiro Koizumi.

The current Prime Minister will, according to LDP rules, have to step down at the end of his second term this September. Though he has been in office for just five years — which still already makes him one of the longest serving prime ministers in the country's history — he has dismissed the idea of seeking a change in the rules to allow him to extend his time in office.

Attention is therefore increasingly focusing on his likely successor and a number of candidates are already jostling to be at the head of the field.

The early front runners are the current Foreign Minister, Taro Aso; Chief Cabinet Secretary, Shinzo Abe; Finance Minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki; and Yasuo Fukuda, a former cabinet chief.

Both Mr. Aso and Mr. Abe are known as hawkish on China and indeed it is the hawks who have been doing most to clearly stake out their positions in recent weeks. Mr. Aso has made a series of remarks — whether calculated to be deliberately provocative is unclear — which have succeeded in pushing him into the spotlight. Earlier this month he aroused Chinese anger by referring to Taiwan as a country (in contradiction to Japanese policy which is to recognise China's claim to the island) and riled both China and South Korea before that by suggesting that Emperor Akihito should visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine. He has further underscored his credentials for appealing to the right of his party at home by questioning the wisdom of allowing a female emperor to succeed to the Imperial throne.

Yet, it is possible that Mr. Aso's confrontational approach may be difficult for many Japanese to stomach, especially as there has been increasing concern at the deterioration of relations with Japan's neighbors, which have reached historic lows in recent months. A poll in February also showed that the country is split down the middle on the wisdom of Yasukuni visits and the Asahi Shimbun called on Mr. Aso to explain his remarks over the Shinto shrine.

Shinzo Abe, widely seen as Koizumi's preferred successor, has also been careful to support the prime minister's Yasukuni visits and undoubtedly increased his own standing amongst conservatives recently when he made headlines in Japan by rejecting a Chinese proposal on joint gas field development in the East China Sea, near an area claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. Abe also appears to have strong support from business executives, with a survey by the Japan Business Federation naming him the most suitable to replace Koizumi.

Second in this same survey was Yasuo Fukuda, who along with Tanigaki is more dovish on China. Although his candidacy is popular with the business lobby, which see a possible thaw in Sino relations should he take over, his candidacy was dealt a blow last year by Koizumi's decision not to include him in the cabinet reshuffle.

<>Sadakazu Tanigaki, whose bid a Daily Yomiuri poll showed to be languishing in single digits, has begun trying to stake out a moderate sounding position. He argued in a profile raising visit to Washington in January that if Japan is to address the challenges of an aging — and contracting — population, it must steer a course between the high benefit but high tax model of Scandinavian countries, and what he says is the 'survival of the fittest' approach of the United States.

Of course a week, let alone six months, is a long time in politics and there may be a few surprises between now and September — indeed Koizumi was himself something of a surprise winner back in 2001 in the notoriously factional style of Japanese politics, and the Yomiuri poll suggested nine potential leadership contenders. But the beginning of the new financial year is expected to see the contest begin in earnest, and those that do decide to run will therefore likely feel that the next six months go by fast.

Jason Miks is a writer living in Tokyo.


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