Mr. Kato has seen his influence vanish since his failed rebellion against Mori Yoshiro in 2000, which was followed soon thereafter by the arrest of his secretary and his (temporary) resignation from the Diet. He subsequently became LDP’s leading liberal, criticizing both his onetime comrade Koizumi Junichiro and Abe Shinzo for their revisionism before declaring his support for Fukuda Yasuo. A retired diplomat who was in MOFA’s China School, Mr. Kato has been a relentless critic of historical revisionism and a tireless advocate of cooperation in Asia. Indeed, as seen as in this 2004 speech at Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Kato, like Mr. Fukuda, has a vision for a peaceful, integrated Asia.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kato is not particularly popular with the Japanese right — and his home was the target of arson on the auspicious date of August 15, 2006.
But now with a perch at the top of an influential organization that spans party lines, perhaps Mr. Kato may yet have an important role to play in Japanese policy making. The prime minister needs all the help he can get in making a case for a constructive relationship with China and a more cooperative approach to Asia more broadly. Few prominent, popular figures seem to be willing to make the case publicly and persistently for a more cooperative Asia-centered foreign policy, meaning that the conservatives have effectively won the propaganda war. Mr. Kato, however, still commands respect when he speaks, even as an outcast within the LDP.
Mr. Kato may now be prepared to reconnect with Yamasaki Taku, the other member of the YKK, to fight back on North Korea policy and Japan’s Asia policy more broadly.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kato appeared on a TV program to join Mr. Yamasaki in his feud with Abe Shinzo, emphasizing the failure of the Koizumi-Abe line on North Korea. Arguing that Japan may be finally having a debate on North Korea, three years late, he said about Mr. Abe, “If Mr. Abe was a person who understood a little more about the international situation, the Six-Party talks on the North Korean nuclear problem would have been held in Tokyo.” In other words, if Japan had remained engaged in finding a solution to the problem instead of going down the abductions rabbit hole, Japan would be enjoying greater influence in the region today, instead of wondering how Japan became so isolated, estranged even from the United States. (He also urged Mr. Fukuda to reshuffle his cabinet and distance himself from the Koizumi line, advice that runs contrary to Mr. Koizumi’s, and is unlikely to be embraced by the prime minister, who, I think, is less concerned about embracing a “line” than balancing the various elements of the LDP and keeping his opponents off balance.)
Perhaps this is the beginning of pushback by the liberals against conservative-revisionist control of the LDP. It is unlikely that the pushback will get very far, resting as it does on Messrs. Kato and Yamasaki, politicians on the downhill side of their careers, unless they manage to encourage their compatriots to speak up (one of Mr. Kato’s greatest strengths seems to be courage and fearlessness in the face of great opposition) and challenge the conservatives. However, it matters less what they do within the LDP than what they do in the public at large. If Mr. Kato can combat public skepticism towards China and challenge an abductions-centered North Korea policy in public, he will have accomplished something great — and something necessary for the future of a peaceful Asia.