Abe's Political Quagmire

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2017-08-21 | 责编:
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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might be frustrated over a number of problems in domestic politics recently. The nation's ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), suffered an unexpected defeat in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in July, which demonstrated that the prospects for Abe and his party look bleak.

A poll conducted by Kyodo News Service in late July showed that support for Abe's cabinet dropped to 35.8 percent from 50 percent at the beginning of this year. In another public opinion survey released by Japan's national daily The Mainichi several days later, support ratings for Abe's cabinet plummeted to 26 percent, hitting a new low since Abe assumed the prime minister position for the second time. Moreover, 63 percent of those polled agreed that the LDP should change its leader when Abe's term as the party's president is set to end in September 2018.

If these conditions continue, it will be difficult for Abe to modify the country's pacifist constitution during his tenure.

Abe's mistakes

The LDP should attribute the electoral defeat and falling support rate to three blunders committed by Abe. The first one is a land-sale scandal, which remains unresolved.

The scandal was uncovered in March when public prosecutors from Osaka Prefecture received a complaint about Yasunori Kagoike, the school operator of the Moritomo Gakuen education institution. According to the complaint, Kagoike unlawfully received state subsidies worth about 56 million yen ($505,000) related to the construction of an elementary school on state-owned land in the city of Toyonaka. Prosecutors then launched a probe into the Kagoikes.

Kagoike is also accused of promoting militarism as an educator. He is suspected of using connections to right-leaning politicians—including Abe—to secure the discount. In his testimony to parliament in June, Kagoike claimed that he believed political intervention had a role in the transaction because the land deal progressed faster after he asked for help. What's more, Abe's wife Akie was serving as "honorary principal" of the school until her resignation in February. Abe denies any connection to the land sale. Kagoike was arrested on July 31 over the allegations.

Meanwhile, Abe is involved in another scandal. In January, the government approved an application to open a veterinary department at the Ehime branch of the Okayama University of Science, a private school operated by Kake Gakuen in Okayama Prefecture. The proposed department would be built in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.

It was the first approval of its kind in 52 years. But according to the government, there are enough veterinarians to meet demand in the country, meaning that permission from the state is required to open new veterinary departments.

The president of Kake Gakuen—officially known as the Kake Educational Institution in English—is one of Abe's closest friends. Their friendship can be dated back to Abe's period of studying in the United States. Opposition lawmakers suspect Abe of misusing his clout to favor his friend to approve the application.

Abe denied putting any pressure on the government to favor Kake Gakuen when questioned in parliament.

Undoubtedly, public opinion on the two scandals is negative, dragging down support ratings for Abe's cabinet.

Abe committed the second mistake by appointing Tomomi Inada as the country's defense minister. As Abe's protégé, Inada poses the same political stance as Abe on many issues, including seeking military expansion, historical revisionism and constitutional amendment. Abe even planned to cultivate Inada as his successor in the LDP. But Inada has drawn criticism for controversial remarks and actions since she assumed the post of defense minister in August last year.

At a press conference after a cabinet meeting on June 30, Inada suggested that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) support an LDP candidate in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election. Inada's remarks immediately triggered discontent from the opposition. She was accused of trying to use her influence to ask for SDF voters' support.

Inada resigned on July 28 over a scandal involving the cover-up of controversial logs that recorded the daily activities of Japanese ground troops serving as UN peacekeepers in South Sudan.

Based on a report by The Washington Post, an investigation into the scandal discovered that Inada and the defense ministry had kept military records under wraps while Japanese peacekeeping troops faced a worsening security environment in South Sudan during the summer of 2016.

According to Japan's laws, if the conflict involved combat or warfare, the Japanese Government would have required its peacekeeping troops to withdraw. But Inada and the defense ministry concealed the fact and hindered parliament from discussing and making decisions on the mission.

Critics have accused Abe of attempting to maintain the mission in operation regardless of the increased security risk because he was aiming for a larger role for the Japanese military in the peacekeeping mission. The internal inspection found a series of violations in the defense ministry. Abe subsequently chose to cast off Inada, who had to take responsibility for those actions.

Abe has always managed to find a way to enforce his own will in the law-making process. This is because Abe and the LDP maintain dominance in parliament. With such a majority, the LDP led by Abe often forcefully passes laws without debate in parliament, which is totally unconstitutional. The approval of new military laws was a case in point. Furthermore, the LDP on June 15 manipulated parliament to pass an amendment to a law which punishes organized crimes. Abe and the LDP's hawkish and forceful actions have roused public concern and discontent.

Japan's confused future

Will these scandals and low support ratings pave the way for Abe to step down? Japan's political sphere is facing various structural dilemmas.

The LDP rules both the Japanese parliament and government. In the LDP, Abe dominates the party. In the past, the LDP kept balance between different factions in the party. But factional divisions have always resulted in unstable party leadership.

Junichiro Koizumi, who was Japan's Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006, weakened major opposition in the LDP. After Koizumi, the LDP and the Democratic Party took turns governing the country. But in the LDP, unity has been greatly enhanced. In contrast, the Democratic Party has become unstable. After Abe re-assumed his position as prime minister in December 2012, factions in the LDP compromised with Abe in order to secure the party's ruling position in parliament. Abe took the chance to centralize power—despite the current scandals, there is no powerful contender within the LDP.

Apart from the LDP, Japan's Democratic Party underwent reorganization in recent years. Support ratings for the LDP have dropped to 35 percent. But the Democratic Party's figures have become even worse, lowering to just 6 percent.

Currently, prominence of politicians without party affiliation is on the rise in Japan. Overall support ratings for them have reached 41 percent. However, it will be hard for them to beat the ruling LDP in the next parliament election.

Choosing which direction Japan should head in has confused its politicians since the end of World War II (WWII).

The United States led the way to liberal capitalism in Japan. But by the 1980s, Japan had reached the end of that road. In fact, Japan in the 1970s attempted to speak on an equal footing with the United States and called to build a world jointly led by the United States, Western Europe and itself. In the following decade, Japan sought in various ways to become a major political power in the world.

After the Cold War, the United States asked for Japan's financial support in several regional armed conflicts, but nonetheless denied Japan a leading role in Asian affairs.

Under such circumstances, some of Japan's pacifist politicians proposed that the government concentrate on improving public welfare and people's livelihoods. But conservative forces have a stronger influence in Japan. Koizumi and Abe are two such leaders. They yearn for the rebuilding of the Japanese Empire.

Abe's maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister twice in the 1950s and served as a senior official in Japan's wartime cabinet during WWII. Kishi was held in prison as a Class A war criminal for three years from 1945 to 1948.

Perhaps because of this special blood bond, Abe is more ambitious in pursuing Japan's political and military agenda in the international arena. Coincidentally, former U.S. President Barack Obama's "Pivot to Asia" strategy served as a stepping stone for the Japanese prime minister to pursue his policies of expansion and historical revisionism. Japan's resurgence as a military power means the return of an authoritarian political system, and its public should be alert regarding this dangerous trend ahead.




Shi Yongming is an associate researcher of the Asia-Pacific region at the China Institute of International Studies.



SourceBeijing Review, August 17, 2017.