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Cracks in the ruling coalition

On the evening of Feb. 12, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was sitting in a Michelin three-star sushi bar in Tokyo’s Ginza with an unusual group of politicians, sipping the Dassai brand of sake made in his native Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Flanking him were Shigeyuki Tomita, chairman of the Lower House Economy and Industry Committee, and Kazuyoshi Akaba, senior vice minister of economy, trade and industry, both of New Komeito, the junior partner in the coalition government led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Also present were Hiroyuki Arai, head of the New Renaissance Party, a minor party, who arranged the meeting, and Takaya Imai, the prime minister’s executive secretary.

The main purpose of that meeting was to let Abe and Tomita exchange their views, close on the heels of a heated debate that took place earlier in the day at a Lower House Budget Committee meeting on Abe’s pet theme of enabling Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense simply by changing the long-standing government interpretation of the Constitution.

At the committee session, Hiroshi Ogushi of the Democratic Party of Japan, the top opposition party, fired questions on the subject at Yusuke Yokobatake, deputy director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, and Akihiro Ota, minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, who is from New Komeito. Apparently irritated at being left out of the discussion, Abe repeatedly raised his hand seeking a chance to answer directly, but the committee chairman, Toshihiro Nikai, acted as though he did not see Abe’s hand. Nikai, who has long been working on establishing good relations with neighboring countries, appeared to be denying Abe a chance to speak on the matter.

When Nikai finally let Abe speak, the latter exploded, saying, “The ultimate responsibility of the government rests in me, not in the director general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau. I am also responsible for replies given by government officials. Whatever I say will be judged in an election.” In saying this, Abe expressed his determination to ax the government’s long-standing constitutional interpretation that bans the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.

Overwhelmed by the prime minister’s strong statement, Ota said that he agreed with what he said and that there was no discrepancy between the two. His words were interpreted as expressing New Komeito’s concurrence with Abe, in direct contrast with the position maintained by the party’s head, Natsuo Yamaguchi, that the exercise of the right to collective self-defense cannot be permitted by a mere change in the interpretation of the Constitution. This difference between the incumbent party chief Yamaguchi and his predecessor, Ota, brought to the fore an intraparty discord.

The meeting between Abe and Tomita just after the Diet discussion was significant in gauging the distance between the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, which form the ruling coalition, on the subject. Tomita told Abe that New Komeito wants the prime minister to take time and act with caution and suggested that “gray-zone” security situations that can be coped with by the exercise of the right to individual self-defense should first be considered on an individual basis.

Replying in a crafty manner, Abe simply praised the way Ota answered at the committee meeting and said he was “not trying to do everything all at once,” thus giving no commitment to Tomita on the timing of establishing a new government interpretation that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense.

Surprised by newspapers’ daily brief reports on the prime minister’s activities the previous day, which mentioned the Abe-Tomita conversation, Ota phoned Abe. Shortly afterward, Abe told his close associate that Ota had just phoned him, implicitly suggesting that New Komeito is not monolithic.

With the LDP holding a commanding majority in both houses of the Diet, a “war of nerves” has begun to become increasingly fierce between Abe and New Komeito, which is the sole political group capable of applying brakes on the prime minister’s courses of action.

Exercise of the right to collective self-defense has now become Abe’s political creed. Although a private advisory body for Abe is now discussing this issue, little has been debated in the governing coalition parties. Is Abe going to get his own way in breaking ground in discussions on the exercise of the right to collective self-defense?.

Abe himself is faced with a major contradiction in that a deep schism has emerged in the Japan-U.S. alliance, which serves as the basis for the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Unless this contradiction is removed, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the exercise of that right will lead Japan into isolation.

After Washington expressed “disappointment” over Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, Seiichi Eto, Abe’s adviser, publicly criticized the U.S.: “We are the ones who were disappointed. Has the United States become incapable of speaking up to China?”

Having ideologies close to those of Abe, Eto had strongly urged Abe to visit the shrine and went to the U.S. in November to see how Washington would react to such a visit. After the U.S. issued a statement expressing disappointment over Abe’s Yasukuni visit, however, a view spread in Abe’s inner circle that the root cause of the U.S. reaction was Eto’s visit to the U.S.

According to one lawmaker of the governing coalition, Eto did not tell the U.S. explicitly that Abe would visit the shrine, creating a hope in Washington that he might refrain from doing so.

That made the U.S. all the more infuriated over Abe’s Yasukuni visit, the lawmaker says, adding that Eto dared to make the harsh statement in an attempt to remove the disgrace placed on him.

Indeed, shortly before going to Yasukuni, Abe told LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba that he was about to make the visit despite the latter’s objection and that he had obtained Washington’s understanding.

Abe had Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga instruct Eto to retract his statement and the latter complied. But no further action has been taken against Eto to hold him to account and Abe seems to have no intention of firing him.

Eto is not the only person among those close to Abe who has created controversies by making an anti-American statement. Koichi Hagiuda, special adviser to Abe as LDP president, made a speech highly critical of President Barack Obama while Etsuro Honda, a special adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat, praised Abe’s visit to Yasukuni in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Ishiba took three top officials of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) to task for speaking in a “manner inappropriate to their positions.” They are Katsuto Momii, NHK chairman, and two members of its Board of Governors — Naoki Hyakuta, a novelist, and Michiko Hasegawa, a philosopher and professor emeritus of Saitama University — the latter two handpicked by Abe to pack the board with members who share his conservative views and Momii appointed by the board.

Since its founding in 1955, the LDP consistently followed its diplomatic policies based on the Japan-U.S. alliance. Any move to run counter to this “pro-American conservatism” was regarded as breaking a taboo. But with Abe’s Yasukuni visit, “anti-American conservatism” started to raise its voice, which is diametrically opposed to the principle the party followed in the past.

But even those close to Abe have expressed grave apprehensions about the rise of anti-American conservatism. One of them said, “The U.S. wants Japan to be friendly with South Korea and not to get into trouble with China. This presumably is the type of collective self-defense which the U.S. wants Japan to pursue.”

Similar concerns are being expressed by officials of various ministries — the Foreign Ministry at the top of the list followed by the Finance Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade. These ministries routinely keep close contact with the U.S. Among them has arisen even a view that the grip held by Abe’s right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, over Abe’s behavior has weakened after he failed to stop him from visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

Even within the LDP, those who have been critical of Abe but have remained silent have started making moves, in the wake of defiant statements made by Abe and his lieutenants.

At a recent meeting of the LDP General Council, lawmakers like Seiichiro Murakami and Hajime Funada asked for changes in Abe’s postures. Although these voices were dismissed by the prime minister as coming from dissatisfied elements within the party, things have started to change after Nobutaka Machimura, a senior LDP leader who heads an intraparty faction from which Abe has hailed, said, “The whole party is slacking off. This will only bring about 100 harms and no benefits.”

Fukushiro Nukaga, another LDP factional leader, said, “The (Abe) administration’s rate of approval is bound to start falling eventually. But I will not accept (Abe saying) ‘Let’s get friendly’ when the rate drops.” Nukaga, who also heads the Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians’ Union, had once advised Abe to refrain from visiting Yasukuni. He is gradually moving toward an anti-Abe stance.

Abe originally sought to make economic recovery through his “Abenomics” economic policy the main theme of the current session of the Diet.

In reality, however, debates on what may be called “Abeno-politics” have become dominant. Indeed, while Abe preoccupies himself with discussions on constitutional matters in the Diet, stock prices fluctuated violently with the economy showing no strong signs of recovery.

There has been a clash between Japan and the U.S. in the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement. And there has been no appreciable progress in the reconstruction of areas hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami three years ago. Little progress is being made in containing radiation-contaminated water from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and there is no prospect in sight for decommissioning the plant.

“Why doesn’t the prime minister concentrate on economic matters,” laments a close associate of Abe. “He has been able to enjoy a high rate of approval only because people still have hopes in his Abenomics. He should be in no hurry to amend the constitutional interpretation.”

The consumption tax rate will be raised from 5 percent to 8 percent on April 1. But Abe appears to have no sense of tension about the possible adverse impact from the tax hike. It is a historical fact that no previous administration that has raised the consumption tax rate has remained unscathed.

Moreover, there is a voice within the prime minister’s office that the newly created National Security Council has not been functioning properly. The reason for this is that the NSC members do not include a Cabinet minister in charge of economic affairs despite the fact that nowadays, the economy has a much more weight in the nation’s security than diplomacy and military strength. The Abe administration is not fully aware of the importance of national economic strategy, including financial services.

Will Abe be able to tide over the situation that will develop following the consumption tax raise?

Abe has publicly stated that he would reshuffle his Cabinet and LDP officers after the current Diet session adjourns in summer. But making such personnel changes would be extremely difficult in view of criticism against his right-leaning policies and the priority he places on constitutional issues over the economy.

Ishiba, who once appeared to have lost his aspiration for the top post, has started seeking to be Abe’s successor. In the meantime, among veteran politicians such as Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, former LDP Vice President Tadamori Oshima, Lower House Budget Committee Chairman Nikai and factional leader Nukaga, there is a move to launch a study group to promote liberalism and improve diplomacy toward neighboring nations.

With the consumption tax hike and U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan right around the corner, some within the LDP are predicting a political crisis in September.

If a crisis becomes a reality, the price Abe would have to pay for pushing constitutional debates would be too high.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.