Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led a rollercoaster, but often charmed, political life. After being forced to resign prematurely during his first stint as prime minister in September 2007 due to a stinging July 2007 upper house election defeat and a bowel illness, Abe managed a rare political comeback. In December 2012 he led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to victory and back to government.
Abe learnt that in order to survive in the top job he had to focus on revitalising the economy. He also figured out that he could not afford to rush through his nationalist agenda to revise the Constitution without due consideration for public opinion.
Abe put forward his Abenomics economic policy vision, a plausible if incomplete attempt to revive the languishing economy. He also navigated a number of controversial security policy changes. These included passing a special secrets law to facilitate intelligence sharing with allies, reinterpreting the Constitution to allow limited forms of collective self-defence and passing security legislation to implement this constitutional reinterpretation.
Abe’s dream run hit a speed bump early last year with the emergence of two school scandals. He survived the allegation that the government had sold a parcel of land to educational institution Moritomo Gakuen at an astonishingly low price due to its links with his wife, Akie. He again survived allegations that the selection of Kake Gakuen as Japan’s first new veterinary school in over a half a century was due to the fact that the operator is a family friend. Abe’s poll numbers plunged in the first half of 2017. But he recovered, riding a wave of support on his tough line against North Korea, which had just increased its missile testing, including two intercontinental ballistic missiles which flew over Japanese airspace in August and September 2017 respectively. Abe subsequently called and won a snap election on October 2017.
Celebrating his fifth anniversary in power in December 2017, Abe looked on course to overtake his great-uncle Eisaku Sato to become Japan’s longest serving post-war prime minister. The stage was set for Abe finally to pursue his long-cherished goal to revise the Article 9 peace clause of the Constitution. The LDP changed its internal party rules to enable Abe to run for a third consecutive three-year term as party president and thus continue on as prime minister until September 2021.
But the Moritomo scandal has been brought back from the dead to haunt Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso. As Ben Ascione explains in our lead article this week, new revelations emerged this month that ’14 documents submitted to the Diet between February and April 2017 as part of an investigation into the Moritomo Gakuen scandal had been doctored. The doctoring included the deletion of references to Mr and Mrs Abe, Akie Abe’s alleged remarks, the names of several LDP lawmakers, portions of a timeline of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, and reference to the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi with which Abe and Yasunori Kagoike, the head of Moritomo Gakuen, are affiliated’.
The opposition parties allege a cover up. They accuse the Ministry of Finance (MOF) official in charge of the sale to Moritomo Gakuen of giving false testimony and the government of promoting him as a reward. The suicide note of a regional MOF official who explained that ‘he feared he would be forced to take the blame and that he was ordered to alter the documents by his superiors’ has further damaged the Abe government’s already plummeting cabinet approval rating.
Opinion polls show that the public is sceptical of Abe’s and Aso’s explanations, which blame a small group of bureaucrats for their problems. As Aurelia George Mulgan says, ‘it is difficult to believe that no political influence was exerted either directly or indirectly regarding Morimoto Gakuen … At the very least, Abe and Aso are open to the charge that they established an environment that encouraged MOF officials to grant discretionary favours on their bosses’ behalf’.
A big part of the problem has been the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Kantei. The bureaucracy has traditionally been a strong check on the power of those elected to the Diet — perhaps too strong at times. In its brief time in power, the Democratic Party of Japan in the early 2010s started to shift governing power away from bureaucrats and towards politicians.
The Abe government consolidated with a fundamental shift towards political control over bureaucratic appointments. Now the current Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Kantei, Yoshihide Suga, has the power to promote, sidetrack or scrutinise the top 600 bureaucrats. It is difficult to provide frank and fearless advice under such circumstances. Few officials now speak out against policies, and many more are second guessing the Abe administration’s policy intentions.
The damage of the Moritomo scandal to Abe’s future, Ascione explains, has three dimensions. ‘It revives public perceptions of Abe as arrogant and refusing to accept responsibility for government actions. Such perceptions have dogged Abe during his time as prime minister as he fixated on unpopular and nationalistic initiatives’. His government’s response to the current scandal has served to intensify such views.
The scandal ‘brings to the fore the connection of Abe and other cabinet members to right-wing nationalist groups’ such as Nippon Kaigi. Other schools operated by Morimoto Gakuen are ‘notorious for requiring students to recite the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education (abolished in 1945) which established how loyal imperial subjects should behave in accordance with the Emperor’s will. Students were also encouraged to idolise the Japan Self-Defense Forces, sent on excursions to wish SDF members good luck before deployments and taught to chant slogans in support of Prime Minister Abe’s security initiatives’. Abe’s connection to the school reminds the public of how his ‘agenda is out of touch with ordinary voters’.
The scandal threatens to undermine relations between Abe and Aso. Even if Aso ultimately survives the calls for him to step down as finance minister, ‘he may resent that his name and political future have been put on the line for what is essentially an Abe scandal. If Aso decides to withdraw his support for Abe and puts the votes of his faction members up for grabs, the LDP leadership race [in September] would be thrown wide open’.
If Abe proves to be the ultimate Teflon man and survives until September or beyond, the odds on his recovering enough political capital to navigate the revision of Japan’s pacifist Constitution have been seriously diminished. Optimists will hope that the scandal is the wakeup call Abe needs to kick-start economic reforms and perhaps even governance reforms. But his very political survival is now on the line.
The Editors of the East Asia Forum.
This editorial first appeared on 26 March 2018