Isao Iijima, special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and one of the more colorful figures in Japanese politics, has cancelled a return visit to Washington scheduled for the first week of February.
News of the cancellation came via a letter from Roy Pfautch, a long-time Republican political consultant who was organizing an invitation-only lecture and reception for the enigmatic Iijima.
“It had been my goal when I planned this program over six months ago that we would encourage understanding of today’s political structure in Japan,” Pfautch wrote. “To put it bluntly, there is at present a spread of misunderstanding as to the reason for initiating the lecture program, which I hope will continue. There have been various stories indicating dimensions that, at least to me, are not relevant to the program but do encourage confusion.”
In a telephone discussion from his Tokyo hotel, an amiable but circumspect Pfautch sidestepped requests for elaboration, except to express disappointment about the turn of events.
Some informed US specialists suspect that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Abe’s national security advisor Shotaro Yachi intervened with the prime minister to squash a second Iijima trip.
Last December, Iijima quietly visited Washington to gauge the likely American response to a prospective visit by Prime Minister Abe to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine. Iijima was apparently looking to bolster the case that Abe could go ahead with the visit without much concern about a negative American reaction. Despite vigorous warnings against a visit from most of his closest advisors, Abe appeared at Yasukuni on December 26, prompting a strong American expression of “disappointment.”
American and Japanese officials were furious that Iijima circumvented customary procedures for dignitaries from Tokyo making a political trip to the American capital; he neglected to inform Japan’s Embassy, the State Department, or the staff of the National Security Council about his visit.
The assessment Iijima provided to Abe ran counter to that of another Abe advisor, Seiichi Eto, who had returned to Tokyo from Washington just the week before to warn the prime minister that American leaders would severely frown upon a Yasukuni visit.
With American officials currently applying pressure on Abe to curtail his nationalist impulses (with no repeat visits to Yasukuni a priority), the White House and State Department did not look fondly on the prospect of the maverick Iijima publicly appearing in Washington as an enthusiastic defender of Abe’s Yasukuni visit.
That Iijima would have the swagger to attempt to carve out his own path through Washington should not have surprised anyone familiar with his history.
From 2001-2006, Iijima was one of the most powerful persons in Japan, serving as chief of staff, policy advisor, gatekeeper, and alter ego for then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
He rose to power purely through Japanese politics, including 30 years at Koizumi’s side, developing few connections with the network of trade, security, and foreign policy specialists in Washington and Tokyo who still jealously try to guard their role as managers of the US-Japan relationship.
Iijima has long ruffled the feathers of alliance managers on both sides, including with his suggestion that Japan and the US should be “separable” partners, allowing Japan to exercise greater self-determination. Koizumi and Iijima shared a vision of shaking up sclerotic “vested interests” inside Japan, and between the US and Japan.
After Koizumi’s departure from office, Iijima successfully maneuvered his way into Abe’s inner circle. Last year he made a controversial visit to Pyongyang in an effort to reopen clogged communications channels with North Korea. Neither Japan’s Foreign Ministry nor the Obama Administration were consulted prior to the visit.
Nonetheless, Iijima in the past has not been shy about expressing some doubts about Abe’s abilities as a leader. It remains unclear if Abe trusts Iijima as an advisor, or prudently keeps him close-by so as to circumscribe his unpredictable free agent tendencies.