The real meaning of Fukuda’s New Year’s message

Much has been made among English-language bloggers about Mr. Fukuda’s delivering a version of his New Year’s message in English at the LDP’s YouTube channel, the launch of which I discussed in this post. (Asia Exile; TPR; Japundit)

Steven Clemons at The Washington Note took one of his occasional forays into matters Japanese to comment on Mr. Fukuda’s remarks, noting, “Fukuda’s performance is very impressive — and may signal the return of Japan to the kind of state that was strongly promoting global institutions and a kind of sovereignty that derived from embedded multilateralism in contrast to Japan becoming the kind of bland, ordinary nation that simply applauded American arbitrariness in the war against Iraq.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say very impressive, but in these remarks, Mr. Fukuda has added another clear statement of his potentially radical vision for Japanese foreign policy, a vision hinted at on his visit to Washington in November and his recent trip to Beijing. However, what’s not radical is his idea of Japan as a “peace cooperation state.” After all, Japan has ostensibly been a peace cooperation state since it passed its International Peace Cooperation Law in 1992. Japan’s token support for the Iraq war notwithstanding, I don’t think Japan stopped being a “peace cooperation state”; its leaders just began equating “peace cooperation” with support for the US-Japan alliance.

But in the new Fukuda doctrine taking shape, I think the prime minister envisions a Japan that does not need to check with Washington first before undertaking international initiatives of its own. It means not echoing Washington’s (or the Bush administration’s) rhetoric and way of thinking about the world. The next US administration will be less obliging of Japan, and Japan should begin distancing itself from the US in anticipation. Distancing does not necessarily mean disagreeing, but it does mean being more willing to accept and cope with disagreement.

Accordingly, I expect that as 2008 progresses Mr. Fukuda will continue to keep Washington at arm’s length, and he will continue to outline a more independent foreign policy that recognizes that Japan cannot choose between the US and China. He will, not surprisingly, focus little on acquiring the trappings of great power — his abandoning the planned Japanese-style NSC, announced last month, is a case in point. Instead — and this is the part of his message that I especially liked — Mr. Fukuda recognizes, unlike his hapless predecessor, that the trappings of great power are useless if the foundation is crumbling. Japan’s position as a great power will depend on the health and quality of its domestic institutions. Constitution revision is a distraction, as we saw last year. If Japan’s institutions are wracked by corruption, its bureaucrats indifferent and even hostile to the citizens they serve, its aged and aging fearful of their prospects in retirement, and its youth discontent and underemployed, Japan will watch its influence dissipate, no matter what role its armed forces are authorized to play abroad.

The question that remains is whether Mr. Fukuda will be able to translate this understanding into policy over the opposition of conservatives in his own party, who reject both his foreign and domestic policy visions. I have been optimistic about Mr. Fukuda since he took office in September, but I still have a hard time seeing how he will be able to outmaneuver both his opponents within the LDP and Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ (the former are, I think, a potentially more harmful opponent than the latter).

2 thoughts on “The real meaning of Fukuda’s New Year’s message

  1. Bryce

    Note that his English message is different from his Japanese one. Significantly, I think the bits about Japan becoming a \”peace cooperation state\” is absent in Japanese, and foreign policy is covered by Fukuda\’s references to using technology and multilateral fora hosted in Japan to solve environmental problems. Perhaps after 6 years of Koizumi/Abe the Japanese government is back to making bland statements about international commitments abroad accompanied by an avoidance of the issue at home?


  2. Anonymous

    This is a very hopeful message by Fukuda for a less hawkish Japanese foreign policy. The possibility that it will depart from the very hawkish US policy may not be as conflicting as you suggest because of the electoral situation in the 2008 election. If the US electorate follows through on its great desire for change from the extreme Bush administration policies then a successor Democratic government will certainly be less oriented to unilateral military led foreign policy and instead emphasize multilateralism and cooperation on a much wider front.


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