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A contrite Abe takes blame for support plunge

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Staff Writer

Taking a recent plunge in his Cabinet’s support rate to heart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted Monday that his government’s recent handling of alleged favoritism scandals was at fault for stoking voter distrust, and pledged to “sincerely fulfill” his duty to explain himself.

“I feel very sorry that a large amount of time was spent debating issues unrelated to actual policy during this year’s ordinary Diet session, and that I, myself, sometimes became emotional in responding to questions that I felt were meant to sway public opinion against me,” an uncharacteristically humble Abe told an annual news conference marking the conclusion of the legislative session.

The flip-flopping of a government investigation into the Kake Gakuen scandal — in which Abe allegedly exerted his influence to help open a new veterinary department at a university run by a longtime confidant, Kotaro Kake — was behind the rise in voter distrust of the government, he said.

“I will make continued efforts to regain public trust and sincerely explain myself,” he said.

Abe’s remarks came after opinion polls conducted by major media outlets over the weekend showed his Cabinet’s approval rate had plummeted by about 10 percentage points on average — due apparently to the ruling coalition’s heavy-handed management of the Diet session.

Last week, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner Komeito rode roughshod over usual Diet procedures by taking a legislative shortcut that allowed for the contentious conspiracy bill’s swift passage through the Diet.

The move was largely criticized as Abe’s attempt to hastily wrap up the January-June legislative session and therefore weasel out of his responsibility to publicly explain his role in the Kake Gakuen scandal.

A Kyodo News survey put the Cabinet’s support rate at 44.9 percent, down 10.5 points from a month earlier, with 73.8 percent of respondents saying they remain unconvinced by the government denials that the administrative process was distorted by alleged favors Abe bestowed on Kake’s school chain.

The left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun also reported the Cabinet’s popularity had plunged by 10 points, to 36 percent, and even the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun’s opinion poll found the Abe Cabinet’s support had taken a nosedive to 49 percent, down as many as 12 points from the previous month. According to the Yomiuri survey, the biggest reason behind the fall was “untrustworthiness” of the prime minister, at 48 percent.

Reports, meanwhile, emerged that Abe intends to reshuffle his Cabinet and the LDP leadership in the coming months in an apparent attempt at an image makeover.

Such a shake-up would also underscore his apparent wish to further consolidate his power base within the LDP and expedite debates on revising the pacifist Constitution by 2020 — a key timeline announced by the leader on the 70th anniversary of the national charter last month.

Abe, however, on Monday declined to comment on the specific timing of such a Cabinet overhaul.

But he gave away this much: “Making active use of personnel and laying the groundwork both within the government and the LDP is very important to accelerate a variety of our key policies, such as further boosting Abenomics and our ongoing effort to reform Japan’s working style.”

Of the bill to criminalize conspiracy, Abe hailed its passage as a major step forward in Japan’s effort to combat terrorism as it gears up to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Critics say the bill, which revises the current anti-organized crime law, risks giving the state an excuse to crack down on activities by groups that it loosely defines as “organized crime syndicates,” possibly including labor unions and citizens’ groups.

“The threat of terrorism is proliferating all over the world,” Abe said. “We can waste no time in boosting our counterterrorism effort in the lead-up to the Olympics and Paralympics.”

He gave his assurances the bill will be “properly implemented based on what was discussed at the Diet,” so that “lives and properties of our citizens will be protected.”

Abe’s news conference came at a sensitive time when the LDP seeks to drum up support ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election. The campaign officially kicks off Friday.

The LDP’s Tokyo chapter will face off with Tomin First no Kai (Party for Tokyoites First), a fledgling party headed by popular Gov. Yuriko Koike, without support of the Tokyo arm of Komeito, a longtime partner with which it parted ways last year.

“What I think will be at issue is how to create a safer, more livable and child-friendly Tokyo,” Abe said.

“I hope the LDP’s Tokyo chapter will appeal to voters with down-to-earth, easy-to-understand policies so that as many of our candidates as possible will be elected,” he said.

Abe also took the opportunity to reaffirm his view that the U.S. and China “must be on the same page” in responding to nuclear threats from North Korea and urged Washington to “coordinate with Beijing at every possible level” to pressure Pyongyang to rethinking its bellicose attitude.

Prior to Abe’s news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sought to play down the results of the unfavorable opinion polls.

“Of course, we’re always glad if the support rate is higher. But I don’t think we should get too excited or dispirited each time the figure changes,” Suga said.

Meanwhile, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai took a more stern tone. The LDP heavyweight said he will “take the results very seriously and do thorough soul-searching” to turn the tide, according to Kyodo News.