Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mr. Fukuda Regrets; Mr. Ishiba Is Forgiven but Not Forgotten

Sunday morning, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, visited the home of Haruo Kichisei and his son Tetsuhiro, the fishermen who have been missing since February 19, when their fishing boat collided with the Aegis destroyer Atago of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. After Mr. Fukuda left, one of the relatives (the man on the right in the photo accompanying this report who is handing Mr. Fukuda a letter from the family) - echoing the end of a Japanese funeral, when the master of the ceremonies, usually but not always the eldest son, comes out to thank the people who have stayed to send off the deceased in the hearse, usually for cremation - gave a dignified press briefing of sorts and explained that Mr. Fukuda had apologized to the family, in tears, and told them that he would make sure that such a thing would never happen again. Back in his official residence, Mr. Fukuda told the press that the letter “spared no emotion in specifically pleading that Defense Minister Ishiba establish a system where such a thing would not happen; that resignation was not the right thing to do and that they wanted him to continue his work.”

Mr. Ishiba has been forgiven, though not forgotten, by the family. For now, the DPJ is ill-advised to seek his resignation, though there is still political capital to be earned by hammering the defense establishment. For no political good will come of such an act of disrespect for the expressed wishes fishermen and their family. Having said that, Mr. Ishiba, being what he is, should, when he believes that the time has come, resign of his own volition; or, in another typically Japanese way of dealing with these matters, he may be replaced on the occasion of Mr. Fukuda’s first cabinet reshuffle, which I’m guessing will happen this summer. The moral implications of such a replacement will not be missed; Mr. Ishiba, as I noted here, is one of the only two Ministers that Mr. Fukuda did not inherit from Prime Minister Abe’s short-lived second cabinet and will be loathe to give up.

Two things: first, although the Prime Minister must have been well aware of the political implications of his act and the tabloid dailies and weeklies will surely play this angle, I am convinced, based on previous observations, that he was acting sincerely when he went to visit the family. It is the curse of politics that the personal cannot be divorced from the public.*

Second, the extraordinary grace and restraint with which the family received Mr. Fukuda will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the work of the late Yasujirō Ozu, to give a well-known example. Once upon a time, that was what we were. Or so at least we liked to think.

In a not completely unrelated development, last Friday (February 29), the LDP-New Kōmeitō coalition appeared to give some political ammunition to the opposition by forcing the Lower House vote on the budget and budget-related bills instead of waiting to wait a few more days to bring the DPJ on board for the voting (though not, of course, for the bills themselves). I’m convinced that this was a deliberate act of provocation, and that LDP strategists - my prime suspect is Bunmei Ibuki, the Secretary-General - are daring the DPJ to trash Toshirō Mutō, the coalition candidate for BOJ Governor, and deep-six the tax bills, including the gasoline taxes. They see a potential one-off 200-plus billion yen hit in revenues and a stand-off on the BOJ Governor a small price to pay for highlighting what they hope that the media and the public will see as the irresponsibility of the DPJ. I’m not completely convinced that this public communications effort will work, but the ruling coalition will have an unlikely ally of sorts in the Japan Communist Party. I’ll elaborate on all this tomorrow when I’m sober and if I have the time.

* It is in a similar context that Hillary Clinton’s emotional moment during the New Hampshire primaries must be must be understood.

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