Abe Just Won’t Quit

Japanese prime ministers usually resign at the first whiff of scandal — but this one is breaking the mold.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie wave as they prepare to depart from Tokyo's Haneda airport on April 17, 2018.        (Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie wave as they prepare to depart from Tokyo's Haneda airport on April 17, 2018. (Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a fondness for the traditional, whether that’s traditional values in education, traditional religion at controversial shrines, or a traditional army of the kind the country once had, instead of the Self-Defense Forces it created after World War II. The prime minister has shown a clear desire to break from the past, however, in one area: political self-sacrifice.

In Japan’s corporate world, a scandal affecting the future of a company will almost inevitably see the resignation of its CEO. In addition to being prompted by major scandals such as the global recall of Takata air bags, departures are often forced even for isolated incidents, such as in 2000, when the president of Snow Brand Milk Products stepped down over a food poisoning scandal at one of its plants. In the Japanese political world, a fall in poll numbers below the magic 30 percent level can be enough to trigger resignation — witness the sudden departures of former and now largely forgotten leaders Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan, and Yasuo Fukuda, all on the job for about a year. Abe himself was forced out from his first term in 2007 after just one year in office.

But despite two long-running scandals bedeviling his administration, Abe has shown no signs of throwing in the towel since he took office again in 2012. Quite the reverse: In February, to mark National Foundation Day, he said, “I have renewed my determination to boldly take on and overcome even difficult issues going forward, preserving traditions, while at the same time, never fearing change.” It’s an indication of the depths of Abe’s personal ambitions — and his ambition to change Japan’s political culture.

The two scandals themselves are fairly pedestrian. In Washington, they might just be part of the daily business of greasing the wheels. In one case, Abe is accused of having provided support for a longtime friend who was seeking regulatory approval to open a veterinary medicine department at his university, Kake Gakuen in southern Japan, which was granted last year. Nudging the bureaucracy isn’t illegal, but Abe and his aides have fallen into the trap of denying meetings that were later shown to have taken place, including one in which his own secretary had pushed regional officials for approval by saying that the prime minister supported the project. Abe’s lame protestations have been met with skepticism, with a late-May poll in the Nikkei business newspaper finding that 74 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with Abe’s shifting claims about what he knew on the matter.

The second ongoing crisis involves another school, this time Moritomo Gakuen, a highly traditional kindergarten that is a favorite of some conservative politicians. Among its rules are that the children must every morning recite the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education that extolls the virtues of the empire, one of the shibboleths of Japan’s hard right. In 2016, the owner was conveniently able to buy a plot of land in Osaka, western Japan, from the national government at around 14 percent of the market value in order to set up an elementary school.

When pressed on this, the Finance Ministry, which was responsible for the deal, first said the price was legitimate due to toxic waste at the site, then said the records of the negotiations and transaction had not been kept, and finally found the documents. They were duly given to parliament, after which it became clear they had been altered to remove some details, such as the name of Abe’s wife, who at one time was named honorary principal of the planned Osaka elementary school.

She’s quit that job, but her husband hasn’t quit his. Despite all this, Abe’s overall support rate has fallen somewhat but hardly nosedived even as the negative headlines piled up. From a recent high point of around 55 percent in April 2017, the support rate for the Abe Cabinet (the normal way a prime minister’s support is measured in Japan) fell to about 35 percent this April.

Yet even a relatively moderate drop, coupled with the various missteps by the administration, would normally be enough for Abe to be shown the door by the power brokers within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Japanese prime ministers have been rotated at an almost clockwork consistency for much of the postwar period, including Abe himself in his first stint in office. From 1947 until Abe took office for the second time in 2012, the average Japanese prime minister has been in office for just two years. After a surprisingly long run from 2001 to 2006 for Junichiro Koizumi, who is perhaps best remembered for going with U.S. President George W. Bush to Elvis’s home, Graceland, Japan had six prime ministers in six years.

This left the country without a clear global image, as every G-7 and similar international meeting seemed to feature a new face. This is not lost on the prime minister’s office. In a January commentary, senior Abe policy advisor Tomohiko Taniguchi said that the prime minister was in for the “long game.”

“Around the time the economic bubble burst in the 1990s, the Japanese people started to go through prime ministers as though they were disposable,” he wrote. He dismissed the scandals as “petty allegations of influence-peddling and document-forging, which consumed the news cycle in Japan,” adding that voters want continuity, not political uncertainty.

But while allegations of forging documents seem more than petty, the basic point is that Abe doesn’t feel compelled to resign. In part, that’s because he literally has more “intestinal fortitude” than in prior years: He blamed his first resignation on severe health problems due to colitis, worsened by stress after electoral losses and falling popularity, but he now takes medication that was not approved in Japan during his first term from 2006 to 2007.

But Abe also has a firmer grip than previous prime ministers, who were sometimes compromise figures without even the clout to rein in their own party. Abe, in contrast, is a powerbroker of long standing.

He can also point to a better string of successes than his immediate predecessors. “By simple longevity in the top office, Abe has succeeded in increasing Japan’s visibility in global affairs,” said James D.J. Brown, a professor at Temple University Japan. “This is a change from the period when the changes in Japanese PMs were so frequent that there appeared little reason to take the trouble to build a relationship with the Japanese leader.”

It’s true that since he took office in December 2012, Abe has had a number of successes both domestically and internationally. His Abenomics policies have shifted the economy out of neutral and at least into first or second gear. Nominal GDP has risen 11.8 percent since he took office, after having been largely stagnant since 1997 as deflation started to take its toll. The jobless rate has fallen to 2.4 percent, and the workforce has grown 5 percent even as the population began to shrink due to an aging society. Within that, the number of women in the workforce has jumped 10 percent, with the labor participation rate now above that of the United States for adults over 25.

Abe has also managed to turn Japan into a leader of free trade, taking the lead in the Asian Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal after the United States pulled out and rallying the remaining 11 countries to move ahead with the pact. Japan has also reached a free trade deal with the European Union, which would represent the largest such bilateral agreement in history, representing 30 percent of global GDP. All that is a far cry from a country that was known (and still is at some levels) for its barriers to imports, stalling measures to stop everything from apples to skis from coming into the country — Japanese snow is different, officials explained.

But Abe has other reasons he wants to stick around. One of his stated dreams is to be able to amend Japan’s postwar constitution, which was drafted by the U.S. military in 1947 and renounces all use of force to settle international conflicts. Aside from its pacifist nature, it is also notable for being the oldest unamended constitution in the world. Abe said last year that he wants to break that logjam with an amendment that will specifically include the presence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. With the current issues swirling, that goal seems to be receding.

On a more prosaic level, Abe wants to be in office for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. In addition, if he makes it to that point — or even to November 2019 — he will also have the distinction of being the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, surpassing Taro Katsura, who was prime minister in the early days of the 20th century.

Abe advisor Taniguchi has taken a page from the White House playbook, saying that since Abe was handily re-elected last October even after the scandals had broken, the voters were not concerned. “They want continuity, not further political uncertainty,” he wrote.

That may work, according to political observer and former Japanese diplomat Sadaaki Numata. “As a political power calculation, it makes sense”. He says that Abe has enjoyed a stable political base, “but the government’s handling of these incidents has eroded the public’s faith in government,” he said. “I think people want to see their leaders taking responsibility.”

The political landscape could still change quickly as fresh contradictions in statements by Abe and others are still coming to light, including whether he had personally met with the veterinary school owner.

Numata said that a key issue for the public is whether their leaders are using their power in an arrogant fashion. “As for the public, it is important for them to feel that they can trust the government comprising the prime minister, his Cabinet, and the bureaucracy,” he said.

But Abe’s fate doesn’t rest at this point with the electorate. He does not need to call new parliamentary elections until October 2021. However, to remain in office, he must retain leadership of the LDP, that most traditional of parties and the engineers of virtually all the other departures over the years. That vote will take place by September and will be made by the party’s parliamentary factions. Abe has already engineered a change in the party’s rules to be allowed to run for a third term, and there are no well-known intraparty rivals to speak of. The only LDP official out-polling Abe at the moment is, Shinjiro Koizumi, the popular son of the former prime minister, but at age 37 he is seen as too young to be seriously considered.

Abe’s longevity and international standing is clearly a help at this point, but, if he were to lose the LDP leadership, it would hardly be the first time in Japan that a relative unknown is thrust into the nation’s top political office. If the trend reverts to the norm, Japan could squeeze in two more prime ministers before the Olympic torch is lit in July 2020. If Abe breaks the mold, however, future prime ministers will have a clear precedent for riding out scandal — and they might actually start their terms expecting to finish them.


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