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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 20 New Delhi May 5, 2018

Japan: Erosion of Public Trust on Abe

Saturday 5 May 2018

by Rajaram Panda

Notwithstanding Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s relative success on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, and the political stability that he provided for sometime to Japan, the fragility of his government has now been exposed following a series of scandals and controversial allegations against some of his Cabinet Ministers and senior government officials. As a result, his popular ratings have faced a hit, with the former Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, even suggesting that Abe could resign before June 20 when the current parliament session concludes. Koizumi suggests that if Abe does not do so, it could hurt the fortunes of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party during the Upper House elections soon.

The first sign of crack emerged when the Vice-Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, after initial denial, was forced to resign following his alleged sexually harassing remarks. Fukuda’s resignation deals an additional blow to his boss, Finance Minister Taro Aso, who initially defended Fukuda as a competent officer with rich experience. The demand has also arisen for Aso’s own resignation for his Ministry’s alleged manipulation of documents related to a controversial cut-price sale of government land to school operator Morimoto Gakuen. Aso, who doubles as the Deputy Prime Minister, is a close ally of Abe and is now expected to come under increased pressure to step down, though he has reiterated that he himself has no plans to quit.

Fukuda clarified that the allegations made it difficult for him to perform his duties, while denying any wrongdoing. The allegation was first reported by the Shukan Shincho weekly magazine. TV Asahi Corporation had lodged a protest with the Ministry, claiming that one of its female reporters was sexually harassed by Fukuda. The charge against Fukuda was that he invited the female reporter to a bar and made sexually suggestive offers, including if he could touch her breasts and if she could be open to have an affair with him.

Though Abe announced that his Ministry will uncover the truth about Fukuda’s alleged sexual harassment and take disciplinary action against him depending on the result, the law does not permit disciplinary action against government employees who have resigned but only a certain amount can be deducted from their retirement allowance with their consent. It is reported that Fukuda’s retirement allowance is to the tune of 53 million yen and if disciplinary action establishes that Fukuda was wrong, certain amount of the allowance can be deducted. In the meantime, the payment shall remain suspended. Though the Opposition has objected to the payment of the retirement allowance to Fukuda irrespective of the findings of the investigation, Aso still pleads that both sides need to be heard, as he suspects that Fukuda could have fallen into a trap.

Fukuda became the first Japanese Vice-Finance Minister to resign in two decades. He joined the Ministry in 1982 and assumed the post of Vice Minister in July 2017. Deputy Finance Minister Koji Yano will act as the Vice Minister in his place. Fukuda’s departure means that three Vie Ministerial posts are now vacant in the Finance Ministry. In March 2018, Nobuhisa Sagawa had stepped down as the Ministry’s National Tax Agency, a vice ministerial post, over the controversial land deal. As if it was not enough, former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura was forced to apologise on April 23 after broaching the issue in a speech wherein he criticised the audio tape allegedly made in secret about the reporter’s actions.

No sooner had the Fukuda issue died down, another such gaffe further embarrassed Abe when Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi used an official Ministry car to visit a “sexy yoga” studio in Tokyo in another apparent scandal to hit the government. The weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that Hayashi went to the studio where a female instructor gave a private yoga lesson and then oil massage to a customer in a compartment on April 16 where he spent two hours. The Minister reportedly told someone that he went there for “better health”. In Japan, the use of official cars for private use is not allowed and therefore a clear distinction between private and public matters remained blurred as the visit was justified to have taken place in between public duties. This revelation could deal a fresh blow to Abe’s government, already battered by a flurry of political scandals, including two cronyism scandals. In the meantime, the President of the yoga studio denied that she was ever a porn actress, and demanded a correction and an apology from the magazine.

As a result of these scandals, the popular rating by voters for the Abe Government is declining steadily. The Finance Minister is also under pressure to quit. The recent polls showing negative picture for the Abe Government bodes ill for Abe’s bid to be re-elected as the party chief in September in a vote he was once expected to win easily.

Abe has enjoyed the advantage of a weak Opposition and this helped him to remain in power so long. Though the Opposition is still in disarray, Abe’s own popularity has nosedived because of these scandals, though his Abenomics have yielded some dividend and his foreign policy has served the nation’s interests.

In such a situation, the impression of the LDP-Komeito combine becoming weak coinciding with the surge of the Opposition could be wrong. Abe might have to yield his political space to someone else, but the LDP-Komeito combine might remain unaffected from remaining in power. The truism is that there are no viable alternatives. A Mainichi Shimbun opinion survey over the weekend showed public disapproval of Abe’s leadership but at the same time voters expressed that they cannot find a powerful rival who can replace him. There is a fear amongst ruling coalition legislators that the Cabinet approval, which stood at 30 per cent, could fall further to an alarming level. Optimists however feel that the Abe Government can have a few opportunities to make significant achievements and regain public support and thus manage his administration.

His success on the foreign policy front could help Abe to some extent to gain lost ground. In the latest case, Abe seemed to have prevailed upon President Donald Trump during the summit on April 17 into declaring success in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear tests and the firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Because Abe and Trump carefully coordinated their policies, North Korea made such an announcement, it was claimed. At a time when the Abe Government has been hit by favouritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, Abe scoring big points in diplomacy could help survive his government. It is however to be noted that Fukuda’s announcement of his decision to step down over sexual harassment allegations against him that coincided with the Abe-Trump summit, drew more public attention and media coverage.

Some within the government hoped that the important diplomatic events, including the inter-Korean summit on April 27, the planned Japan-South Korea-China summit meeting soon, and a Japan-Russia summit meeting in May could boost the popularity of the administration. Sceptics however say such advantages could be superficial without any substantial merit that could help Abe. Japanese people find it hard to digest that Abe continues to shield Aso despite the fact that the latter tried his best to protect Fukuda instead of sacking him immediately. For example, Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, feels that the government is “falling one step behind”. Some LDP lawmakers opine that Abe might find it difficult to stay in office once the outcome of its in-house probe into the doctoring of documents relating to the heavily discounted sale of a state-owned land lot in Osaka Prefecture to Morimoto Gakuen, which had ties with his wife Akie, comes out. The Opposition parties would find ground to hold Abe politically responsible over a series of scandals, compelling him to resign.

If Abe quits, his chance for a third term as the LDP leader in a party presidential race slated in September would be virtually over. There are some hopeful candidates to succeed Abe as party President and Prime Minister who could exploit the current situation. Fumio Kishida, former Foreign Minister and current head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, and Shigeru Ishiba, former LDP Secretary-General, are waiting in the wings to take over power. Both these aspirants are critical of Abe’s handling of the situation. Six Opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), are demanding that Abe steps down and have refused to attend Diet deliberations since April 20 because their demand has not been met. Key bills, including the work-style reform, one of Abe’s top priorities, are pending in the Diet and the ruling party is keen to pass these before the current Diet session ends on June 20. The ruling party can probably take some consolation from the fact that the approval rating for the CDP, the largest bloc in the lower chamber, remains the same at 13 per cent as before, showing that Opposition parties have not been able to garner more public support even though the government has been hit hard by a series of scandals. A disunited Opposition could be to Abe’s advantage. The critical question that however remains is: for how long?

Abe had hoped that his diplomatic efforts could help boost support for his administration. In a meeting with Shigeo Lizuka, head of the association of the families of victims abducted to North Korea in the 1970s, Abe emphasised the achievements made at his summit meeting with Trump on April 17, wherein Trump promised he would raise the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea with a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sometime in late May or early June. The date and venue are yet to be announced. Abe claimed that Trump promised to do his best. As it transpired, Fukuda’s announcement of resignation won more media spotlight over Abe’s claimed diplomatic achievements.

Much to Abe’s disappointment, however, he failed to reach an agreement in talks with Trump on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, as the latter is insisting on bilateral negotiations. Tokyo expected Washington to exempt Japan from the import restrictions imposed on steel and aluminium, but the two countries only agreed to continue discussing the matter.

The truism is that public trust in the Abe administration has been eroded substantially following the scandal-generated storm. The public demonstrations in front of the Diet building and elsewhere are ominous signs for Abe’s political future. The erosion of his popularity rating since his coming to power in December 2012 following scandals raise questions about his continuance in power. In the past, when his popularity rating took a hit, Abe dissolved the Lower House and called for a snap election in October 2017 and scored a decisive victory and thus retained power. Talks are afoot again if Abe shall resort to a similar measure. But how he shall clear himself of the charge of nepotism and dishonesty before a questioning media and Opposition remains to be seen. Upholding a muscular brand of nationalism and hyping perceived threats to national security, which is why he aims to revisit the peace Constitution, is not enough to regain lost public trust.

The author, a former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, was until recently the ICCR Chair at the Reitaku University, Japan. He can be contacted by e-mail: rajaram.panda[at]gmail.com

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