I posted on the joint conference of the two Prime Ministers with regard to Taiwan here. I should have done more of my Media Watch before I did so, because I’ve found some more fascinating stuff that is revealing of several aspects of the media. But I need time to write it up properly. In the meantime, a few words on the real implications of the meeting of the Prime Ministers:
The Taiwan mistranslation aside, the joint press conference with Prime Minister Wen came off swimmingly, concluding the substantive part of Prime Minister Fukuda’s visit. It is trivial that it showed that little if anything will come of Mr. Fukuda’s visit that cannot happen without it; it is the symbolism (or, to less kindly eyes, the photo-op) that counts. Mr. Fukuda is China’s favorite, and it was evident. There must be some grumbling back home (this Sankei commentary is a mere foreboding of things to come in the nationalist weeklies and monthlies), but the majority of the Japanese public should welcome this turn of events.
Mr. Fukuda is going to take the China visit and the settlement of the cirrhosis law suits as his otoshidama, enjoy the New Year’s Holidays, then do the refueling resumption bill override thing when the Diet resumes. He will, if the latest reports are to be believed*, use this momentum to revamp the Cabinet that he mostly inherited from Prime Minister Abe. The real purpose, in my view, will be to clear the Cabinet and the sub-Cabinet appointee list of Finance Minister Fukushirō Nukaga and any other suspects before the Yamada Yōkō slush fund scandal really blows up, if it does. Mr. Fukuda probably wants to rid himself of some loose cannons as well. A total makeover is the Japanese way, to do it without pointing fingers.
But going back to China, what did the Chinese get out of it all, aside from setting the table for President Hu Jintao’s visit? The hint lies in the game of catch that the two Prime Ministers played the day after.
I am surprised that people do not take note of the fact that China has two major pieces while Japan has only one**. Now the distinction between heads of government, e.g. our Prime Minister, and heads of state, e.g. a president, is usually trivial with no meaning beyond diplomatic protocol***. However, that protocol takes on great importance between states that share a complicated and ambiguous history that continues to cast a shadow on mutual relations and regional geopolitics, and on the respective domestic scenes as well. For the Chinese authorities in particular, the matter abuts on the very legitimacy on which they base their claims of the popular mandate. It is within this context, then, that the symbolism of Mr. Fukuda’s meeting and press conference with Mr. Wen (and not Mr. Hu) played out. Likewise, the game of catch.
Message? Mr. Fukuda, you are Mr. Wen’s counterpart.
Perhaps if the Prime Minister had tossed a rugby ball at the President during the banquet, Japanese nationalists at home would be happier now.
* It makes sense, and all the mainstream dailies are reporting it. The only caveat here is that 28 December-4 January (extending to 7 January this time) usually are very slow news days, particularly for reporters on the political beat. Mr. Fukuda may have just put up a trial balloon and as an added fillip did the reporters a favor by throwing some fresh meat to his media entourage that accompanied him to this photo-op during the year’s end holidays.
** I’m leaving the Emperor out of consideration because he is even more of a figurehead than any symbolic head of state.
*** Seating arrangements during G-B Summit photo-ops are one thing that immediate comes to mind.