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Yasuo Fukuda’s exit strategy: suicide by drowning

Noriko Hama
5 September 2008

Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School. She writes regularly and commentates frequently in leading journals (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, Financial Times) and broadcasting media (NHK, BBC, CNN). Her publications include (as co-author) Can the Dollar Recover? (1992) and (as contributor) The Japanese Economy in Synopsis (2005)

Also by Noriko Hama in openDemocracy:

"Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains" (12 September 2005)

"How not to build an East Asian Community" (9 December 2005)

"Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity" (18 October 2006)

"The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?" (17 April 2007)

"Shinzo Abe: out of time" (24 August 2007)

"The recycling of the G8: ghosts at the table" (11 July 2008) "This will be a ‘backs-against-the-water' cabinet", said Japan's prime minister Yasuo Fukuda as he took office on 25 September 2007. Fukuda has now resigned. This is strange. You cannot have your back against the water and make a run for it at the same time.

Having your back against the wall is bad enough. Backs against the water is clearly much worse. You can lean on a wall. If you try to lean on water, you drown. In fact it was this very sense of desperation which an ancient Chinese warrior of the Han dynasty made strategic use of as he deliberately positioned his troops at the water's edge. The soldiers had no choice but to resist ferociously as the enemy advanced on them. Deprived of an escape-route, the men did indeed fight magnificently and actually managed to win the battle. The haisui no jin ("backs-to-the-water") parable is a well known one in Japan. Everybody knows what you are talking about when you employ the phrase. It is the rallying-cry of someone who means to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Or so it was thought. Apparently it meant something else to Yasuo Fukuda. He should have consulted his dictionary before he made those remarks on taking office. The dictionary would have told him that the phrase does not mean you can jump into the water and swim away at the first sign of trouble.

The hurriedly convened press conference on 1 September 2008 to announce his resignation was very revealing. Fukuda complained that he could nothing done because the opposition, which now has the majority in the upper house of parliament, opposes him on everything. This is like blaming a bricklayer for laying bricks. The opposition is there to oppose. That is its role in a democracy. Such fundamentals seem to have eluded the outgoing prime minister.

Another telling scene was when Fukuda lost his temper with a reporter. The moment came when a questioner remarked that for someone who was chucking away his job in this abrupt fashion he sounded much too relaxed and that it was an attitude that gave justification to recent criticisms of the prime-minister's aloofness and uncaring detachment. Turning slightly pink, Fukuda retorted that detachment was a virtue and that he was a man who could look at himself objectively. "Unlike you" was his querulous parting-shot. He sounded very angry and very rude.

The lost tribe

This kind of petulance and lashing out at the press is just one more indication of Fukuda's inability to grasp the nature of democracy. The press have a moral obligation to question, to prove, to provoke. Indeed the Japanese press are far too polite for far too much of the time to justify their existence. If Fukuda cannot tolerate the scrutiny of so mild a bunch, he would have done better to stay away from politics altogether.

The "backs-against-the-water" misinterpretation and the ill-tempered press conference performance reveal a lot about Yasuo Fukuda personally. They also speak volumes about the nature of the party he represents. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a party that is both outdated and out of touch. It cannot come to terms with a situation in which it has to explain itself to anybody, let alone the press. It is a party which has very little idea of what defeat means, let alone having to snatch victory from its jaws. It is a party which is only concerned with internal tribal warfare. It has very little knowledge of how to fight wars of ideas in the wider world beyond its gates.

Yasuo Fukuda's predecessor was Shinzo Abe. He also quit his job after barely a year in office (see "Shinzo Abe: out of time", 24 August 2007). If Abe was a Marie Antoinette in his "let-them-eat-cake" detachment from the plight of the working poor, Fukuda is a Rip Van Winkle in his ignorance of the concept of accountability in government. Both sets of flaws are typical of the LDP. Both are the failings of a group of people who have never really had to fight for acknowledgment out in the open, to earn respect and legitimacy through debate and persuasion. Coriolanus was a great hero but he still had to place himself before the inquisition of the citizens of Rome in order to gain their vote, in which undertaking he failed quite spectacularly because of his arrogance.

While no LDP politician can pretend to the calibre of Coriolanus there are many who can more than match him in complacency. Yasuo Fukuda is a typical case in point. So is Shinzo Abe. his resignation was very revealing. Fukuda complained that he could get nothing done because the opposition, which now has the majority in the upper house of parliament, opposes him on everything. This is like blaming a bricklayer for laying bricks. The opposition is there to oppose. That is its role in a democracy. Such fundamentals seem to have eluded the outgoing prime minister.

openDemocracy on Japan's politics:

Takashi Inoguchi, "The Japanese decision" (7 August 2003)

Takashi Inoguchi, "An ordinary power, Japanese-style" (26 February 2004)

John Dower & Yoshio Okawara, "America and Japan: the next century and a half" (25 October 2004)

Andrew Stevens, "The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future" (21 September 2006)



The last dance

Two good friends at the Financial Times referred to Fukuda's resignation as hara-kiri, the Japanese samurai custom of committing suicide by splitting one's stomach open (see David Pilling & Michiyo Nakamoto, "Fukuda gives up the unequal struggle", 2 September 2008). It is a nice allusion but it gives Fukuda undue credit for bravery. After all, it does take a good deal of courage to slit your own belly. The Japanese word for Fukuda's case should actually be ju-sui ("entering the water") which refers to suicide by drowning. The Chinese inventor of the "backs-to-the-water" strategy would turn in his grave to know that a latter-day politician had so misunderstood the strategy as to back into the water rather than make a stand on the shoreline.

With Fukuda all but officially gone, the battle-lines are being drawn in the race to choose the next leader of the LDP. The race is starting to look increasingly crowded. New candidates are putting their hands up by the minute. This might be considered an improvement on previous years when leadership successions in the LDP were ever the product of conspiracy and compromise. But it has come a little late in the day. It looks more like the dance of the headless chickens rather than a leadership race. Perhaps they will all race into the water. That may not be a bad thing.

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