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Monday, Oct. 1, 2007

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Fukuda and the 'Cabinet of the Walking Dead'


Atitle in the Financial Times' Lex Column caught my eye Wednesday. The item, "Japan's Zombies," turned out to be a very readable story about large Japanese electronics companies. But until I got down to actually reading the piece, I was totally convinced it was about Japan's latest Cabinet.

We now have yet another prime minister and yet another Cabinet. But Yasuo Fukuda, the new prime minister, is someone who has been around for a very, very long time.

In fact, Fukuda holds the record for the longest-serving chief Cabinet secretary in history, a feat he accomplished during Junichiro Koizumi's reign as prime minister. At the age of 71, he cannot be considered particularly old by Japanese political standards, or even demographic standards for that matter. Yet he definitely gives the impression of being a throwback to the past, both in the fuzziness of his words and his all too dexterous juggling of power among the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's warring factions.

Nor is there anything even remotely fresh about the new Cabinet. Indeed, 15 out of the 17 ministers were reappointed from the previous one.

On the face of it, this may be considered a sensible choice given that parliament is actually in session and a swift resumption of debate is needed after the abrupt departure of Fukuda's predecessor. Yet the returnees themselves were, after all, only in office for just under a month.

It is questionable at best whether this brief period of time justifies a claim to greater competence. Most of the major names are all so depressingly familiar. They have been in and out of the ministerial revolving door quite a number of times, and each one comes out looking more like a zombie every time.

The same goes for the LDP's executives, if not more so. Zombie or mummy, the choice is yours, in fact.

Fukuda's erstwhile job was taken by Nobutaka Machimura, the foreign minister in the previous very brief Cabinet, who leads the LDP's largest faction and is a close ally of the prime minister. Well, for the moment, anyway.

As the new chief Cabinet secretary, Machimura handled himself with exemplary aplomb at his first press conference, sounding suitably butlerlike and very urbanely media-friendly. Yet there was one inconsistency that stuck out like the sorest of all thumbs in this zombie's remarks, which the press so remarkably managed not to pursue.

The expression that came up again and again was that the LDP now had its back against the wall, or against the water as the Japanese way of saying it goes. This was the prime minister's own choice of words, and Machimura faithfully sprinkled them throughout the press conference.

On the other hand, he also kept saying that a minimum of change was desirable to keep the government ball rolling at this point.

So which is it? Is the LDP gearing up to burn its boats and make a final stand? Or is it trying to get away with taking the path of least resistance while hoping the waterline recedes far enough and soon enough to give it more breathing space?

A camp full of walking dead does not seem a very wise choice when you are really up against it. Or maybe they all have voodoo powers the extent of which we are about to discover.

That would be the ultimate nightmare.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.


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