One of Japan’s top political fixers is trying to boost his profile in Washington, in an apparent effort to counter voices in Tokyo that warned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe against visiting the conflict-ridden Yasukuni Shrine in late December.
Isao Iijima, a special advisor to Abe who has had little contact with American officials through the years, quietly visited the US capital in mid-December, without any traditional heads-up to Japan’s Embassy, the State Department, or the National Security Council. He is set to return to Washington in the first week of February, at which time he will deliver a public speech, and later be the guest at a reception hosted by a long-time Washington insider, Republican political consultant Roy Pfautch.
In a telephone interview from Tokyo, Pfautch, an ordained Presbyterian minister who is credited with helping revive a troubled John McCain presidential campaign in the summer of 2007, says he is footing the bill for Iijima’s return visit because of a personal commitment to fostering dialogue between the US and Japan. He says he has no Japanese clients, including Iijima. Pfautch is one of the few Americans who follow Japan who pays close attention to the goings-on in Nagatacho, Japan’s ‘Capitol Hill’.
It remains unclear if Prime Minister Abe has sanctioned these visits, or if Iijima has wide latitude in his post as an Abe special advisor to spearhead initiatives to advance the prime minister’s agenda.
Iijima has a reputation for taking on bold – some say reckless – projects. Last year, he undertook a controversial mission to North Korea with the expectation of facilitating the return of numerous Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago. He returned empty-handed but unbowed, and his relationship with the prime minister remains solid. The issue is close to Abe’s political heart, as he initially rode to national popularity 12 years ago on a wave of anger over the North Korean kidnappings, and has championed the plight of the ‘abductees’ ever-since.
Before hooking up with Prime Minister Abe, Iijima was best known for the powerful role he played in the 5-year reign of Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister from 2001-2006. He was a principal architect of the maverick Koizumi’s goal to shake up vested interests in the country, including the iron-grip bureaucrats had over policy.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) were none too happy about Iijima’s visit to Pyongyang last year.
They are similarly wary, as are officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, of Iijima’s current efforts to by-pass traditional communications networks between the US and Japan. Iijima wants to build his own information pipeline in Washington through which Abe can directly transmit his views.
There is a long history of colorful figures playing the role of back-channel communicator between Washington and Tokyo. Abe would not be the first prime minister anxious to demonstrate some freedom from the sometimes stifling hold that professional diplomats have over foreign policy.
Between the US and Japan in particular, the days are long gone when such a big and complicated bilateral relationship can be tightly managed by a small group of expert “handlers” on each side. A bigger role for elected politicians, and their trusted aides, is inevitable. Even Iijima’s harshest critics acknowledge he is well-versed in policy matters.
During his December visit, Iijima purposely avoided contact with experts and officials euphemistically known in Washington as the “Ampo Mafia” (“Security Treaty Mafia”), the don of which is Richard Armitage, the former US deputy secretary of State. Instead, he sought out “neo-con” critics of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, whom he calculated would be sympathetic to Abe’s nationalistic antipathies toward China. Iijima managed to snare a meeting with Senator John McCain, though the senator’s staff was previously unaware of him.
Armitage and other members of the Ampo Mafia share the concerns of many in Japan about the strategic implications of the rise of China.
But Iijima is also an enthusiastic promoter of visits by Abe to Yasukuni Shrine, which members of Washington’s foreign policy community overwhelmingly oppose as an unnecessary provocation, and harmful to the national interests of both the US and Japan.
Iijima’s December visit to Washington followed that of another Abe advisor, Diet member Seiichi Eto, who was dispatched to gauge the likely American response to an Abe visit to Yasukuni. Eto was repeatedly warned by Armitage and others against a Yasukuni visit, and upon his return promptly reported this to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and to Abe himself. Eto’s report confirmed Suga’s concern that the timing was not right for Abe to make the visit. (Some people close to Suga, who is perhaps Abe's most fierce loyalist, say the chief cabinet secretary's opposition ran deeper than mere tactics; Suga wants Abe to focus on the economy, prolong his time in office, and achieve the ultimate goal of changing the Constitution.)
Like Abe, Iijima was not happy with the Eto report, so he travelled to Washington, and upon his return reportedly told Abe that Eto was wrong, and that blow-back from the US would not be very strong.
Abe, calling the US bluff, visited Yasukuni on December 26, which resulted in a strongly worded diplomatic criticism issued within hours by the US Embassy in Tokyo, and shortly thereafter by the State Department. Many experts believe that Abe calculated the US would have little choice but the swallow his decision.
Indeed, officials in Washington are pondering how to distance the US from Abe’s stance without causing a rift in US-Japan relations that China could exploit.
Meanwhile, the stocky, 68 year-old Iijima shows no sign of slowing down. He’ll make his speaking debut in Washington on February 5 at the timeless Willard Hotel, in a presentation an invitation indicates he’ll call “Japanese Politics…a Look thru the Veil of Yesterday, Today and a Glimpse of Tomorrow.”