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Monday, Sept. 8, 2008

Why Japan's leaders matter to Americans

CALIF. — These days, when a Japanese prime minister resigns, the temptation is to say just two things. One is "ho," and the other is "hum."

Since the early 1990s, more Japanese politicians have crawled up to the heights of — and then been bumped off — the prime minister's throne than even the Japanese people themselves can count. The one standout was Junichiro Koizumi, who made it through more than five years and kick-started national economic reform. He left behind an image as the most dashing Japanese figure since the last time you saw a gleaming new Lexus effortlessly run a yellow light.

By contrast, alas, his failed successors — Shinzo Abe and now Yasuo Fukuda — ambled along as if they were constantly running out of gas.

A lot of Americans watching the debacle in Tokyo must be tempted to say: So who cares? But caring about Japan's political direction is no waste of time. It's one of the world's most powerful economies, and its engineering prowess is second to none.

On the minus side, its 20th-century past has been notably marred by frightening eruptions of sudden territorial excursions.

The positive reason for caring about Japan's unwanted political undulations is simply that it remains America's most notable ally in Asia.

The last thing America wants Japan to conclude about America is that it doesn't care about Japan. To this end, wisely, the office of Sen. Barack Obama was quick to issue a statement that went over quite well in Japan. It was this:

"I understand that Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda has offered his resignation today. Japan is our leading ally in Asia and a vibrant democracy. I want to express to the prime minister my appreciation, which I believe is shared by the American people, for his leadership on climate change and the support that Japan's Self-Defense Forces have offered the U.S. operation in Afghanistan. Our alliance with Japan is based on common values and interests, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with Prime Minister Fukuda's successor in the months and years ahead to strengthen and deepen cooperation between our two nations and to create a truly global partnership," Obama said.

In fact, Fukuda was anything but a total bust. He did much to put Japan-China relations (sorely aggravated under the ultra-proud Koizumi) on a friendlier footing. He went out of his way to stretch a hand toward Chinese President Hu Jintao, meeting with him four times in less than a year — a frequency unprecedented for a Japanese prime minister. The two leaders even hammered out agreement on the testy issue of energy resource exploration and development in the East China Sea.

What's more, Fukuda, 72, pressed Hu to clean up the dumpy dumpling issue that became one of the mainland's most unappetizing export controversies. And on the ultra-touchy issue of Tibet, Fukuda behind the scenes kept politely urging the Chinese to enter into sincere engagement with the Dalai Lama. Even with U.S. President George W. Bush, he could be equally persistent, in his characteristic low-key way, pressuring Bush at the recent G8 summit of industrialized nations in Japan to stop ducking the greenhouse gas-emission problem.

In many ways Fukuda was a good (if aristocratic) egg, as we might say in America. Though the grandson of a famous and relatively successful past prime minister, he nonetheless lacked the public stature and vibrant media-communication skills without which modern democratic government simply cannot function.

The long-shot to replace Fukuda is in fact a woman. That's the very reason, to be sure, that Yuriko Koike is a long-shot. But she is a pistol, she is a reformer, she has the public backing of Koizumi, quietly maneuvering for her behind the scenes, and she is beholden to no one faction of the ruling party. While it's true that she has never been governor of a small frozen state, the former TV news presenter and graduate of Cairo University — of all places — speaks fluent Arabic and English.

Japan needs to gamble on another Super-K. The same-old/same-old just won't do in modern times. Lots of prime ministerial level issues are important to the United States. A good example is needed for a continuing role of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense forces in the Indian Ocean. The fight against the bad guys in Afghanistan is less difficult when the Japanese can help out with vital fuel deliveries.

Japan's strategic alliance with the U.S. is so consequential that it was surprising that John McCain's office has issued (at this writing at least) no pointed appreciation of Japan and its resigned prime minister, whereas Obama's did so quite alertly. Probably McCain's team was too caught up in the swirl over Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, with her 17-year-old unmarried daughter five months pregnant, to bother to offer a Japanese appreciation.

In fact, McCain's aides would be right to think that in the U.S. no more than five people probably noticed or cared. But the Japanese noticed — and cared.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, on leave from UCLA, has interviewed two former Japanese prime ministers, including Junichiro Koizumi. © 2008 Tom Plate

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