Japanese politics have long been driven by patronage and pork. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has managed to add personality to the mix. Issues, when they mattered at all, were deeply domestic -- the last election, for example, focused on deregulation of the postal savings system.
So it is a bit of a shock to find Japan embroiled in a political struggle with foreign policy topping the agenda. The contest to succeed Koizumi has become a surrogate battleground for a debate over how to repair Japan's tattered relations with its Asian neighbors, China and South Korea.
Put simply, this war of ideas has two schools -- Conservative Realists and Assertive Nationalists.
The Realists fear that Japan has become dangerously isolated from Asia, its influence waning to the benefit of China. Constant tensions with China and South Korea put Japans economic recovery at risk, they worry. The Realists blame Koizumi for his provocative visits to the Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead and worry he tilts too far in his embrace of Bush and his policies in places such as Iraq and Iran.
The Nationalists see China as the principal national security threat to Japan. Their priority is to strengthen the alliance with the U.S., even at the cost of ties to Asia. They believe it is crucial to stand up to what is seen as Chinese bullying, symbolized by Beijing demanding that the Yasukuni visits stop as a price for high-level contacts.
This debate harkens back to the Meiji era and Japan's emergence as a great power. But the tortured history that ensued has left a clear legacy -- both camps accept the U.S. alliance as the foundation of Japanese security. The issue now is one of balance and relative independence in the formation of Japanese policy.
Each camp has a champion in the unofficial campaign for the September vote to replace Koizumi as president of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party -- a post that carries with it the premiership. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the frontrunner and Koizumi's preferred successor, represents the Nationalists. Yasuo Fukuda, who served as chief cabinet secretary for four years, until 2005, carries the Realist flag into battle.
Abe and Fukuda are cast from almost identical molds. Both are veteran politicians, scions of famous political families, even members of the same faction within the party. Yet they offer remarkably contrasting positions on Japan's diplomatic path in Asia and, less visibly, on how to manage relations with the U.S.
Abe, at age 51, is considered a representative of the younger generation. Like Koizumi, he has personal appeal, at ease on television and able to speak directly and emotively. Abe is the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of former Premier Nobusuke Kishi, a towering figure in post-war conservative politics.
Fukuda, who turns 70 in July, is an old-style Japanese politician, more comfortable working behind closed doors than in front of the TV cameras. "Fukuda is cool, rational, calculating, practical, nonideological and noncommunicative," comments William Breer, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Japan. Fukuda, too, is the son of a major conservative leader, former Premier Takeo Fukuda.
Abe is the front-runner, scoring well in polls and among party members. But Fukuda's star has risen in recent months, tied largely to the rise of tensions with China.
"Fukuda looks more mature, serious and experienced," says Breer. "People want better relations with China, though not at any cost. Fukuda can probably deliver that. Abe may not."
The starkest gap between the two men is over Yasukuni. Fukuda led an effort five years ago to create a secular memorial that would allow a prime minister to honor the war dead while avoiding the issue of the 14 Class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni and the unabashed lack of remorse over the war displayed at the shrine's museum.
Fukuda decried the defiant rhetoric in Japan surrounding the shrine, which has become a symbol of defying Chinese pressure. "Discussions in Japan have escalated too far," he said in a speech in late May. "Voices raised here reach China and South Korea, creating a vicious cycle."
Abe, like Koizumi, sees China's interference on Yasukuni as the problem.
"China's diplomacy is high-handed," Abe said recently. "If we permit China to engage in such diplomacy, China will also take a similar attitude on other issues."
But recently Abe pointedly avoided directly answering the question of whether he would continue the shrine visits. That has led some to speculate that Abe may want to find a way out of this cul-de-sac.
The Japanese public, according to recent polls, is evenly divided on the question of whether the next prime minister should visit Yasukuni. They overwhelmingly support the goal of improving relations with Japan's Asian neighbors, but a majority is also sympathetic to Abe's stance against Chinese pressure on Yasukuni.
Beyond Yasukuni, the two men offer contrasting visions of Japan's relationship to Asia and response to growing regional integration.
Fukuda points to the example of the "Fukuda Doctrine," a 1977 initiative by his father that responded to rising anti-Japanese sentiment by declaring that Japan would not become a military power and would try to build relations in the region as an equal partner.
In a series of recent speeches, Fukuda advocated integration of the region through an economic partnership agreement and called on Japan, China, and South Korea to cooperate toward this end. He visited South Korea in March along with former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and met with the South Korean president.
Abe, in contrast, echoes the Bush administration in calling for a strategic dialogue with India, Australia, and other democracies in Asia, as well as the U.S., unifying on the basis of common values -- widely interpreted as a thinly disguised attempt to counter China's rise.
They differ on other issues. Abe is a hardliner on North Korea, while Fukuda has pushed for negotiations. Abe puts revision of Japan'a antiwar constitution at the top of his priority list. Fukuda warns about hasty steps that would alarm Japan's neighbors.
When it comes to managing the U.S. alliance, the choice is subtle. Both have strong ties to the Bush administration. Fukuda played a key role in forging the Japanese rapid response to the September 11 attacks, including the decision to send ships to support the war in Afghanistan. Both supported the dispatch of peacekeeping troops to Iraq.
"Fukuda, however, might be a little more honest in evaluating U.S. foreign policies," suggests Breer. "He might not be as pliable as Koizumi."
Abe remains the favorite to win, particularly among LDP members. But Fukuda's fortunes may have been aided by the emergence of Ichiro Ozawa as leader of the main opposition party. Ozawa, a remarkable political operator and former LDP leader, believes in issue-based politics. He visited China this week and met with Hu Jintao, which suits his clear Realist agenda.
Other events could shape the fight. Koizumi has signaled his desire to visit Yasukuni on August 15, the anniversary of Japan'a surrender. Some analysts suggest that could strengthen Fukuda's appeal. Alternately, the North Korean test missile launches could consolidate Abe's bid for power.
Whatever the outcome, this succession fight will likely mark a turning point for Japan. It could slow -- or perhaps accelerate -- the slippage toward Sino-Japanese tensions. And it will mark the re-emergence of a Japan that looks outward. It is time for the rest of the world to pay attention to Japanese politics.