Party Elder To Be Japan's New Premier

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 24, 2007

TOKYO, Sept. 23 -- Japan's troubled ruling party on Sunday chose as its leader an admittedly uncharismatic party elder known for his dovish foreign policy and quiet political know-how.

Yasuo Fukuda, 71, a longtime salaryman in the oil industry before serving as cabinet chief under two prime ministers, will formally become prime minister Tuesday.

He will take over from Shinzo Abe, 53, the relatively youthful but corrosively unpopular prime minister who left his party in perhaps its worst political mess since World War II, when he abruptly announced his desire to quit 11 days ago and checked into a hospital for stress-related stomach trouble.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has monopolized postwar political power in Japan, badly lost its way during Abe's one year in power, as financial scandals and failure to address a fiasco involving 50 million misfiled pension records led to a crushing defeat in midsummer elections for the upper house of parliament.

"It has become clear that we have not won the trust of the Japanese people," Fukuda said after his selection as party leader. The LDP still controls the lower house, which selects the prime minister.

"There will be no sudden improvement" in the ruling party's popularity, he added. "In order to win back trust, one can only build one block at a time."

To that end, Fukuda is promising to tone down the nationalist rhetoric of his two most recent predecessors, strengthen ties with China, negotiate with North Korea and carefully cultivate Japan's strong relationship with the United States.

He has promised not to visit the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, where Japanese war criminals are honored among the country's 2 million war dead.

After much-publicized visits by Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister whom Fukuda served as cabinet chief, the shrine has become a potent symbol across Asia of Japan's seeming ambivalence about its wartime atrocities.

Abe exacerbated those concerns by backing away from his nation's previous apologies for its wartime policy of forcing women to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Abe said there was no documentation proving that the military coerced women into sexual slavery, a statement contradicted by documents found by Japanese government researchers.

"The LDP can't afford to cause any more blunders," said Harumi Arima, a political analyst. "They want to wipe out the inexperienced, childish image of Abe, and they desperately want to win back trust from the Japanese people."

Fukuda conceded last week that he lacks charisma but argued that his party's problems -- a perception of incompetence and of being politically tone-deaf -- cannot be solved merely by a strong personality.

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