The Daily Yomiuri hosts an interview with former President Lee Teng-hui.

Some observers of Japan-Taiwan affairs have been concerned that Ma, who swept to victory in last month’s presidential election, could take the wind out of attempts to improve relations. Ma has previously taken a hard-line stance on the Senkaku Islands, which also are claimed by China and Taiwan.

But after a meeting with Lee last month, Ma seemed to be willing to take a more pragmatic tack with Tokyo.

“We discussed using his influence to help develop Japan-Taiwan ties. I’d like to continue receiving Mr. Lee’s advice,” said Ma, who will officially take office on May 20.

Observers suggested the meeting also indicated Lee was keen to act as a conduit between Ma and Japan.

Lee also spoke of his plan to make a sightseeing visit to Japan before the end of the year, which will include a trip following the path 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho took during the early Edo period (1603-1867), as recounted in his work, “Oku no Hosomichi.” Lee, a prominent Japanophile, said he plans to visit Niigata and Fukui prefectures, among other places.

March’s presidential election, in which Ma, a former chairman of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), thumped ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh to herald the second democratic change of government since the end of the war, epitomized the growing maturity of Taiwan’s democracy, Lee said.

“The election showed the depth of our democracy. I expect the democracy that I built up over 12 years will grow stronger,” he said.

However, he had some stinging words for the Democratic Progressive Party.

“The DPP’s win in 2000 was a step forward for democracy, but what has happened in the eight years since? The people were fed up–they became disillusioned with the corruption-riddled DPP,” Lee said.

The return to power of the KMT, which favors closer relations with China, has made some DPP members skittish over whether the new administration will lean more toward unification with the mainland. However, Lee believes the possibility of a union between Taipei and Beijing remains remote–at least in the near term.

“Taiwan is, to all intents and purposes, a single country. The China-Taiwan issue won’t be resolved for quite some time,” he said. “China has its hands full dealing with its own knotty internal problems, so the administration there doesn’t have the wherewithal to focus on the Taiwan issue.”

Lee praised Ma’s plan to start direct flights between China and Taiwan and welcome Chinese tourists, saying these moves would improve Beijing-Taipei ties. But he was more skeptical of the incoming president’s hopes for a peace accord with China.

“I doubt that will happen,” Lee said.

And there was Lee not a month ago saying a Ma win might set democracy back twenty years.