In sacking a top aide, Japanese premier averts diplomatic crisis

The outspoken behavior of conservative nationalist politician Masayuki Fujio got him sacked as Japan's education minister. Mr. Fujio's head was promptly delivered, figuratively speaking, to the governments of South Korea and China. Those Asian neighbors of Japan had been outraged by Fujio's decidedly unrepentant rendition of Japan's imperial past in a just-published magazine interview.

The sacking of Fujio this week was more than a foreign-policy crisis for the government of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. It was also the first serious political crisis since the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) two months ago experienced its most overwhelming electoral victory yet.

Fujio's published remarks also contained an undisguised attack on the prime minister. In Fujio's view -- and apparently in that of a significant number of fellow party members -- Mr. Nakasone has failed to fulfill the rightist mandate of the election victory.

Nakasone, it is whispered, has moved to the left. The prime minister is seen as too concerned with placating China, South Korea, and other Asian nations as part of a grand foreign-policy strategy that includes a summit with the Soviet leader early next year. Having just won a one-year extension of his term in office by the consent of his party, Nakasone wants to secure a diplomatic triumph for the history books.

Outside the LDP, particularly in the media, Fujio's behavior is viewed as a dangerous sign of the LDP's post-election arrogance. An analysis in the liberal Asahi Shimbun, a leading daily newspaper, worried that, ``Unless the LDP can exercise self-control over arrogance among its members resulting from the party's overwhelming victory, . . . there will not only be other such statements from the rightists, but also various demands from interest-seeking factions within the party.''

The crisis was triggered by Fujio's interview with the monthly Bungei Shunju, one of Japan's most prestigious publications. Commenting on recent history, Fujio openly expressed views not uncommon in Japan's right-wing nationalist circles. He denied the criminality of the 1937 ``Nanking Massacre,'' one of Japan's most famous war atrocities. He said the 1910 Japanese annexation of Korea was the product of mutual ``agreement'' between the two countries. And he questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal convened by the Allies after World War II.

Not surprisingly, these remarks got an immediate reaction, particularly in South Korea. The South Koreans called off a scheduled meeting of foreign ministers this week in Tokyo (it has since been restored), and there was talk of calling off a visit next week by Nakasone to Seoul for the opening of the Asian Games.

There was added insult because Fujio held the post of education minister. In June before he was appointed minister, a similar controversy developed when the Education Ministry approved a high school textbook that contained similar views of Japan's past.

In the interview, Fujio attacked Nakasone for not attending an Aug. 15 memorial ceremony (the anniversary of the end of World War II) at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, honors some of Japan's most infamous ``war criminals.'' Nakasone's past visits to the shrine (he was the first prime minister to visit the shrine while in office since the war), had stirred strong protest from other Asian nations. Other LDP conservatives have criticized Nakasone for backing off from his convictions by not visiting Yasukuni this year.

The diplomatic furor required that Fujio do the proper thing for a Japanese Cabinet official: resign and save the government further embarrassment. Not only was this urged privately by Nakasone, it was also strongly pushed by the head of Fujio's faction in the ruling party: Shintaro Abe. For Mr. Abe, a former foreign minister and leading candidate to become the next prime minister, Fujio's case has done serious political damage.

But Fujio is a man who takes his beliefs seriously. ``He believes in bushido,'' says one Japanese political observer, referring to the Samurai warrior code: ``To resign is to surrender.'' Fujio's defiance forced Nakasone to fire him, the first Cabinet-minister sacking in 33 years.

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