'The Eel' is Back in Tokyo

“Overnight is an eternity in politics,” former Secretary of State James Baker once said.

Never has this axiom of Baker’s been proven more prescient than in Japan over the last seven days.  When embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his surprise resignation last week,  the smart money had it that Yaro Aso, secretary-general (chairman) of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and in effect the Dick Cheney of Japan, would be his successor.  At 66, more polished and urbane than Abe, and a former foreign minister, Aso’s succession seemed a fait accompli.

But a funny thing happened to Aso on his way to the way to the prime minister’s office: he fell behind.  And, much like the hare in the famous fable, Aso finds himself trailing a political tortoise:  Yasuo Fukuda, at 71 five years Aso’s senior, someone who fell short in the race for the LDP helm that brought Abe to power last year.  Fukuda did not join Abe’s government and seemed headed to obscurity — until now.

Days after Abe’s resignation, Fukuda — son of Takeo Fukuda, who held just about every Cabinet position there was before serving as prime minister from 1976-79 — nailed down the support of factional bosses that, according to the Financial Times,  representing 277 LDP members of parliament out of 387.  For his part, Aso is hanging in — hoping that some of the parliamentarians will not follow their bosses, and that he will score big among the 141 representatives of the LDP’s 47 regional chapters who also select a new party leader September 23.  

But Fukuda’s dramatic rise in days is due in part to the fact he is different from Abe — at 52, the youngest post-war prime minister — and Aso, flashy and self-assured.  “The No-Frills Alternative,” is what the FT dubbed Fukuda, whose father’s skills at insider politics and wheeler dealing earned him the nickname “the Eel.”  In many ways, Yasuo Fukuda is as much an eel as Takeo was:  someone who worked in the oil business until he was 53 and then went into politics as Cabinet secretary under Abe’s still-loved predecessor Junichiro Koizumi.

In terms of ideology, Fukuda is considered a “moderate” — which is a euphemism for not embracing the nationalism and eagerness to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution that Abe and Aso clearly demonstrated.  Fukuda disagreed with his old boss Koizumi’s viits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors some war dead who were criminals in World War II and is hated by China and South Korea.  Fukuda now promises he won’t visit the controversial shrine if he becomes prime minister. 

Fukuda also draws support from backers as well as opponents of the highly controversial anti-terrorism measure in which Japan refuels ships from allied nations in the war on terror heading to Iraq and the Middle East.  The measure, which Abe came under intense fire for supporting strongly, comes up for renewal November 1. 

Although sources from Tokyo told me that Abe and Aso would have guided the proposed ballistic missile system Japan has long planned for to fruition, Fukuda’s views on this issue are unknown.  

A footnote:  The elder Fukuda made it to the premiership, only to be dumped after three years by an interparty coup of opposing LDP factions.  Yasuo Fukuda seriously explored and then abandoned a bid for premier a year ago when Abe seemed a cinch.  Now, in what appears to be a dramatic comeback, he is proving that you can write no one off in politics until they are dead and “the eel” is back in Tokyo.