Argument

How Do You Say ‘Kingslayer’ in Japanese?

Meet the man who could unseat Shinzo Abe in the next election.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe learned an important lesson from his disastrous first premiership in 2006, when he oversaw an administration beset by corruption and poor party discipline: Picking the right people is crucial. And so when Abe won the presidency of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) in September 2012, one of his first decisions was to name the very competent Shigeru Ishiba, the man he had just defeated in the primary, as the LDP’s secretary-general. In Japanese political parties, the secretary-general is a hugely important position, responsible for campaigning, personnel decisions, and disciplining the party’s legislators. Back then, Abe’s decision seemed smart. With the December 2012 general election approaching, Ishiba’s grassroots supporters, his ability to speak to popular concerns, and his policy affinities with Abe ensured that he would be an effective campaigner.

He was right: Ishiba helped Abe return to power and consolidate his control of the LDP. But with one year left in his term as party president, Abe is wondering whether his one-time challenger could challenge him again. During the run-up to Abe’s Sept. 3 cabinet reshuffle, his first since returning to power in December 2012, the Japanese political world obsessed over the question of how Abe would handle Ishiba.

Abe had to decide whether to let Ishiba stay on as secretary-general, shift him to a cabinet post, or let him return to the backbenches. The best choice for Abe would have been to give him a time-consuming cabinet post that would limit his ability to rebuild support from grassroots party members and parliamentarians; the worst case would have been to remove him from the party leadership but not give him a government post, leaving him with ample time to prepare for a campaign. But by making these calculations too obvious, Abe mishandled Ishiba and had to offer him an easy ministerial post — thereby leaving himself open to a challenge in the September 2015 election.

Ishiba is a threat to Abe for the same reasons he was the man to beat in the 2012 election. At 57, he is in the prime of his career, and two years younger than Abe. He is experienced, having served as defense minister twice and agriculture minister once, as well as in senior party positions. He is widely known as a leading defense policy expert — he has called himself a "military otaku," using the word often associated with obsessive fans of manga and anime. And as a native of Tottori, one of Japan’s poorest and least-populated prefectures, he can speak cogently about the gap between urban and rural Japan in a way that appeals to the LDP’s base.

Of course, these advantages were not enough to beat Abe in 2012, largely because Ishiba also has a fiercely independent streak that led him to leave the LDP in 1993 and to reject the party’s old-style factional politics after he returned in 1997 — neither of which endeared him to LDP elders. In 2012, although Ishiba won the first round of party voting handily — in a five-man race he received 199 out of 500 total votes, compared with 141 for Abe — he failed to win the majority that would have given him the nomination. In the second round, with voting limited to the party’s parliamentarians, Abe edged out Ishiba 108 to 89.

By immediately naming Ishiba as secretary-general after the primary, Abe limited the possibility of fallout from that closely fought election. And for the next two years, Ishiba dutifully managed the LDP and guided it to victory in two national elections.  

However, Abe misstepped in August, when he offered Ishiba a newly created post: that of minister in charge of making changes to national security legislation in order to implement collective self-defense. It was a poisoned chalice: Abe was trying to neutralize Ishiba. If he accepted that position, Ishiba would have to explain to hostile opposition parties and a skeptical public the unpopular legislation necessary to fully realize the Abe government’s new constitutional interpretation regarding Japan’s national security posture. He would face harsh questioning in time-consuming deliberations in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, and spend countless hours negotiating with the LDP’s centrist coalition partner, the Komeito Party. The position would have not only kept Ishiba occupied, but would have tarnished his reputation by making him the public face of an unpopular initiative. It would additionally be a demotion, since a newly created ministerial post ranks well below the LDP’s secretary-general. But it was also a reasonable ask: As the LDP’s leading defense policy specialist, Ishiba would be uniquely suited for the job.

Yet Ishiba’s supporters saw this as a barefaced effort to sideline him, and urged him to decline — which he did, during an Aug. 25 meeting with Abe. That same day, Ishiba stated in a radio interview that he preferred to stay on as secretary-general, to oversee the LDP’s campaigns in the Oct. 26 Fukushima and Nov. 16 Okinawa gubernatorial elections — though Abe appeared to have had no interest in retaining Ishiba in so powerful a post. Determined to keep Ishiba occupied and off the backbenches, Abe met with him again on Aug. 29 and offered him the newly created post of rural revitalization czar. He would be responsible for coordinating the "local Abenomics" policies — new programs to combat population decline across rural Japan by encouraging new business formation and other structural economic changes — that will dominate the agenda during the forthcoming autumn legislative session.

And Ishiba accepted. Compared with Abe’s first offer, the job Ishiba managed to bargain his way into has high visibility and little downside. Since few expect that Tokyo will be able to reverse decades of decline in Japan’s periphery in the next few years, Ishiba will be able to take credit for whatever the Abe government is able to achieve — and with virtually no chance of failure. Indeed, if he encounters resistance from other members of the government or the bureaucracy, he could use this post to present himself as a populist fighting for citizens of depressed areas against the remote authorities in Tokyo. And with nationwide local elections coming up in April, Ishiba will have plenty of chances to connect with voters across the country.

If Abe was able to contain Ishiba during his first two years in office, why did he feel the need to shift him out of the spotlight and into a tough cabinet job now?

Abe has a difficult year ahead. Between now and the end of his term in September 2015, he will have to decide whether to resume nuclear power generation, which he stopped in September 2013 for regulators to conduct safety inspections of the country’s reactors. He also needs to ensure that the economy recovers from the consumption-tax increase this April; introduce legislative changes to write his government’s new constitutional interpretation permitting collective self-defense into law; and guide his party through nationwide local elections in the spring of next year.

The prime minister may already be stumbling. While the economy was expected to suffer as a result of the consumption-tax increase, the latest figures show that Japan’s second quarter GDP contracted at the fastest pace since 2009, far worse than initial forecasts suggested. A decision to restart nuclear power generation could prompt widespread opposition. The debate over national security legislation could turn ugly, as opposition parties try to prolong the process and raise doubts in the public’s mind about the government’s martial intentions. Or, as happened during Abe’s first premiership nearly a decade ago, his government could be hit with a string of scandals and resignations. Any of these outcomes would likely trigger dissent from within the LDP, which — with the party leadership election approaching in September — could quickly grow into a campaign to unseat Abe.

Ishiba is the most likely champion of that campaign, but not because he and Abe disagree on policy issues: While Ishiba lacks some of Abe’s conservative ideological baggage, both are hawks in favor of constitutional revision and taking a hard line in territorial disputes with China. As with Abe, Ishiba’s instincts on economic policy can best be described as statist — he believes that it is the role of the Japanese state to correct disparities among regions (the focus of his new post) and assist those affected by economic change.

Rather, Ishiba may be the only challenger Abe fears because there is virtually no one else. Thanks to the party’s landslide defeat in 2009 and its landslide victory in 2012, the party’s ranks are unbalanced: There are plenty of senior party leaders whose days of vying for the premiership are behind them and plenty of freshmen legislators, but few seasoned politicians young enough to have mass appeal but experienced enough in government to be taken seriously as contenders for the premiership. And whereas many of the midcareer heavyweights are longtime allies of the prime minister, Ishiba has an independent base and the support of roughly three dozen LDP members, who have been coalescing into a pro-Ishiba faction.

If Abe gets economic growth back on track while continuing to enjoy strong public support, neither Ishiba nor anyone else is likely to mount a serious challenge to Abe in the LDP leadership election. Winning re-election as party leader would in turn enable Abe to lead his party to a likely general election victory sometime thereafter, since at present, no opposition party enjoys support greater than 10 percent of the population, and virtually all parties — including the former ruling Democratic Party of Japan — have struggled with internal divisions that have hindered their ability to oppose the government.

Unlike in 2006, Abe has managed his government effectively. However, personnel choices may still come back to haunt him.

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