By Philip J. Cunningham
Mukade, as the centipede is known in Japanese, are ubiquitous in the lushest parts of Japan, feasting on insects and small animals while scaring away competition. The hard-shelled arthopod can inflict a painful sting on anything that gets to close to its pincers, especially when cornered, but even after capture, the mukade is notoriously hard to vanquish. Merely stepping on it will not do the job, nor will a smack of the broom. To borrow the advice of a friend's father-in-law, you need a serious pair of scissors to do the job. Only when ripped asunder does the beast cease to resist.
That Japan's mountains remain green and thickly forested has something to do with the far-sighted and extremely selfish policy of cutting down other people's forests in places like Borneo and Burma to satisfy Japan's almost insatiable appetite for wood and wood products. But centipedes are also a force for keeping things green, as their aggressive ecology makes the idea of forest dwelling, or even living too close to a forest, icky and uncomfortable for human dwellers who don't like finding multiple-legged insects in their shoes in the morning or on the ceiling at night. The rainy season, when centipedes guard their young, is the most treacherous time of all.
Thus mukade, the humble centipede, provide a model of adaptation and persistance that anticipates, by several million years at least, samurai notions of hard-shelled toughness and the zealous guarding of turf.
The long-enduring Liberal Democratic Party of Japan recently came very close to being ripped asunder during the past rainy season after a devastating defeat in the polls followed by the humiliating retreat of a hard-line prime minister who rolled himself up into a protective ball when the going got tough.
A nuanced understanding of politics somehow eluded him, he, the cosseted scion of a rugged political family groomed for prominence from birth. Shinzo Abe, the champion of right wing invective and cruel innuendo complained sheepishly at the self-inflicted end of his tenure that politics was tougher than he thought.
Critically for the torn and tattered LDP, newly selected Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is a highly competent, low-key politician who is really hard to dislike. If you told him he didn't have any personality he would probably agree with you; it is precisely this genial agreeableness that makes him useful as a party unifier given the polemics of these times. The ultimate team player, though in every way Abe's senior, he had shrewdly withdrawn from running against Abe last year for the sake of party unity and as a gesture toward a multi-generational family friendship.
Taro Aso, in contrast, is naturally combative, controversial and careless in speech; not what the LDP needs to heal itself at this juncture.
I saw Fukuda and Aso duke it out at the height of their inner party campaign, during an unexpectedly generous whistle stop at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Tokyo where the questions are tough and eligible voters are few.
What was most striking, aside from two very different conversational styles --Aso the raspy, straight-talking populist versus Fukuda, the mild-manner party bureaucrat whose voice barely broke the level of whisper—was that they held confusingly similar views on most topics.
But on closer examination there was method to that maddening lack of clarity.
Fukuda and Aso could have been two peas in a pod. It is true that, unlike Aso, Fukuda has made a clear statement that he will refuse to visit the Yasukuni shrine (controversial for Japan's neighbors because they consider some of the officers buried there to have committed war crimes during WW II). Fukuda's stance on the issue represents a clean break from the deliberately provocative stance of Koizumi and the deliberately ambiguous but essentially unapologetic stance of Aso, which echoes that of Abe. As veterans of the same old party, Fukuda and Aso are in every other respect quite similar. Aso's run for Prime Minister never really threatened Fukuda's chance of getting the nod, but it created sufficient political spectacle and democratic spirit to take the wind out of the sails of the LDP's real opponent, Democratic Party firebrand Ichiro Ozawa, who had held the initiative and political high ground for much of the summer, but failed to foil Fukuda.
It's no exaggeration to say that the LDP heaved a heavy sigh of relief when Fukuda took over the helm from the mysteriously absent and weirdly self-effacing Abe who had reportedly thrown in the towel due to intestinal distress.
One can only imagine the political bickering and crafty maneuvering behind the scenes in smoky rooms at which the wounded, staggering LDP found the gumption to suddenly reinvent itself. The right-leaning, war-glorifying wing of the party, led by Abe, had through mistaken policy and ineptitude, come close to cleaving the party in two. Like any well-designed bureaucracy, the LDP is composed of people, but it is also has a will to survive that extends beyond any particular individual member. When it found itself dangerously out of touch with what people were really thinking, the party did what it had to do, cutting its losses and changing tack.
So Abe's name is mud, despite the political blue-blood that flows in his veins. And Abe's like-thinking associate Aso, who by virtue of factional clout and service to the party might have rightly been the party's first choice for a shot at the top job, had to reconcile himself to the fact that it was in the LDP's best interest that he lose.
Indeed, there was audible relief outside the corridors of the LDP when the nod went to his opponent. For whatever Fukuda lacks in charisma, it is compensated by the perception that he is wise and willing to compromise. For whatever militant ideology he lacks, it is compensated by his political skills for getting things done more or less as they always have been done.
A TV crew from Fuji Television interviewed me immediately after the Fukuda-Aso debate. As I attempted to offer an impromptu "foreigner's" view, I said that I found Fukuda the more reassuring of the two because he wasn't so backward-looking as to want to drag Japan back into WWII values of the sort espoused by Abe and Aso. The crew shed the pretense of journalistic neutrality, nodding eagerly, as if they could hardly contain their hearty agreement. It wasn't an isolated incident, either, everywhere in the media, from newspaper stories to Sunday talk shows on TV, one could detect visible relief that, for the moment at least, Japan could put World War Two back in the past where it belongs and address more pressing social problems of the present and near future.
Koizumi got away with politically provocative but essentially naïve comments about international relations because he had the dramatic flair to wow an audience. I once saw him addressing a crowd outside a kabuki theatre and his presence drew a far more excited crowd response than the kabuki stars themselves.
In contrast, the dour Abe brought doubt to everything he touched. He frittered away valuable political capital inherited from Koizumi by re-imagining World War Two all over again and losing all over again. Whether it be in regard to the criminality of war criminals, or the willingness of comfort women to "comfort" or the mandated textbook changes that threatened to take the history of Okinawa away from the descendants of the people who suffered under the militarist's boot, Abe was tone-deaf and ideologically rigid to a fault.
Japanese democracy, imperfectly and indirectly expressed through a largely symbolic rejection of the ruling LDP in the Upper House elections in July, conveyed a message as clear as the last mid-term elections in the US; people are sick and tired of war talk and want politicians to focus on social issues, not warfare, real and imagined. On both sides of the Pacific, the people have said no to grandiose top-down ideologies that treat the common man as canon fodder for elite nationalistic dreams.
The people of Japan are inheritors of a twin tradition, as proponents of a terrible war and as victims of a terrible war. Japan's peace movement, born in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is powerful and not easily deterred. They have nurtured a war-renouncing constitution and citizen peace tradition almost unique in the world, and they have played a key role keeping Japan peaceful and at peace for six decades.
Japan's peace constituency, in terms of domestic power is the equal to, if not superior of the war-glorifying revisionist fringe, that gets all the bad press. The pacifists have spoken quietly and firmly and the message is simple: keep the peace.
Fukuda may consort with right-wingers and may depend on some of them for political capital, but he is hypo-allergenic and hygienic in comparison to the dirty politicians who propagate viruses of hate and nationalistic divisiviness. The Japanese body politic is showing signs of allergy to the right-wing revisionism of his predecessors. If Fukuda is to achieve anything at all, he must keep the rightists at bay.
Given the setbacks and debacles of Abe's singularly clumsy year of rule, the LDP has taken a corrective change of course that will prevent it from veering too far off course for the foreseeable future.
A centipede can lose a few feet and still feed itself, navigating the forest floor as before. To the consternation of Ozawa and other LDP foes, ready and waiting with scissors in hand as the dazed and disoriented political machine writhed on the ground, the multi-footed and functionally segmented LDP political machine has miraculously righted itself and is back on track.
The hard-shelled LDP is finding its way out of danger, one step at a time, doing what it was designed to do and always did best, which is to say, surviving, marching forward, despite daunting odds.
PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM