Critics of Japan PM diplomacy see hope in Fukuda
TOKYO, May 10: Yasuo Fukuda isn't known for his fashion sense, his manner can appear a bit abrupt, and few people know his favourite song.
That might seem to make the veteran lawmaker a long-shot to become Japan's next prime minister, given the growing importance of media appeal in the nation's political scene since soundbite-savvy Junichiro Koizumi took the job five years ago.
But critics who blame Koizumi for a sharp deterioration in ties with China are hoping Fukuda's image as a statesman who could repair relations means there's a chance he can leapfrog his more popular rival, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, in the race to lead the ruling party and hence, Japan.
Abe, 51, a softspoken political blue-blood known for his tough stance toward Beijing and North Korea, routinely tops the list of politicians voters say they want to see succeed Koizumi when his term as ruling party president ends in September.
Fukuda, 69, comes second ahead of Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.
Fukuda has denied that recent visits to South Korea and the West Asia -- and a week-long trip to the United States starting from today -- are part of a strategy to seek the post held by his father Takeo three decades ago.
''It has nothing to do with the post-Koizumi race and the last thing we want is to give an impression that it is linked,'' an aide to Fukuda told Reuters before he left for Washington to meet US lawmakers and exchange views on Asian diplomacy.
Japan's relations with both China and South Korea have grown frosty since Koizumi took office in 2001 and began annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine for war dead, seen by Beijing and Seoul as well as critics at home as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.
Fukuda said late last month that the time was ripe for a new ''Fukuda Doctrine'' updating the platform of ''heart-to-heart'' diplomacy toward Southeast Asia formulated by his father in 1977.
''Nothing good can come from disputes with South Korea and China,'' he told a seminar.
''SHADOW FOREIGN MINISTER''
Fukuda, who hails from the same party faction as Koizumi and Abe, joined a non-partisan group of lawmakers launched in November to push for a secular war memorial as a place for Japan to honour its war dead without angering the neighbours. His advocacy of improved ties with Beijing resonates with Japanese business leaders worried that the diplomatic deep-freeze could hurt vital economic ties, though a survey of executives in February showed Abe was nonetheless their first choice.
Fukuda is taking a more aloof approach to pre-campaign jockeying than Abe, who as top government spokesman is in the public eye daily and whose recent activities include an appearance on a popular comedy show, where he revealed his favourite song and told how he proposed to his wife.
''Fukuda's very cool under fire. He's analytical...and he is not a person for a lot of small talk and back slapping,'' said Columbia University political science professor Gerald Curtis.
''He doesn't come across as someone who is desperately ambitious for political power,'' Curtis said, adding it was still uncertain whether Fukuda would run for party chief.
Fukuda played a pivotal role as top government spokesman early in Koizumi's reign, expanding his brief into diplomacy and and security and earning the nickname ''shadow foreign minister''.
He resigned in 2004 after admitting he had skipped some payments into the public pension scheme, though some analysts attributed his abrupt departure to growing friction with Koizumi and others close to the prime minister.