/ |

Abe treading on lions’ tails

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to stumble almost every time he makes an aggressive move. When his coalition parties rammed through the Diet the state secrets law late last year, it met such strong public criticism that he had to apologize at a subsequent press conference. His Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where the war dead — including Class-A war criminals — are enshrined, caused the U.S. government to issue a statement saying that it was “disappointed,” casting a cloud over the bilateral relations. These appear to be self-inflicted consequences of his own making.

On May 15, the day when Abe’s private security advisory panel presented him with a report calling for reinterpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, major newspapers surprised their readers with news articles on the deregulation council’s proposal for reform of farm policies that included demolition of the powerful agricultural cooperatives, which dominated Japan’s agriculture.

Even though this was condemned by Akira Banzai, chairman of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu), Abe told a meeting of the Industrial Competitiveness Council four days later that fundamental changes were needed in farm policies so that local cooperatives could play leading roles and act independently to turn agriculture into a growing sector.

Abe’s push for farm policy reform, primarily targeted at JA-Zenchu, is closely related to the multilateral talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade scheme.

According to Foreign Ministry officials, major issues pending between Japan and the U.S. on the TPP scheme were virtually resolved when Abe met with President Barack Obama in Tokyo in late April, and what remains to be done is to decide when to disclose the points the two countries agreed on.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has hinted that details, including figures, will be disclosed before the U.S. midterm election campaigns go into full swing, which means August at the latest.

JA-Zenchu has been staunchly opposed to the TPP accord but will have to do more to protect the very existence of the organization against Abe’s initiative.

The farming bloc has long been the principal source of votes for the Liberal Democratic Party and many of its members in rural constituencies cannot even carry out their daily political activities without the support of JA members.

Abe has been able to reach the top position in power on the strength of having served in high-ranking LDP and government posts under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who ruled from April 2001 to September 2006. Therefore he often copies his mentor’s tactic.

An LDP Upper House member said Abe is trying to demolish JA-Zenchu with the same tactic as Koizumi used in privatizing the nation’s postal services. He added that Abe appears to be trying to get rid of JA-Zenchu as “resistant forces” as Koizumi crushed opponents of the postal services privatization by giving them the same label. But with powerful intra-party factional leaders like Nobutaka Machimura, Fukushiro Nukaga, Toshihiro Nikai and Tadamori Oshima representing the farming bloc, Abe may be playing a dangerous game of “treading on a lion’s tail.”

Abe’s fundamental strategy has been to avoid coming under control of intraparty factions by naming those with no factional affiliation to important party and government posts: Shigeru Ishiba as LDP secretary general, Seiko Noda as chairwoman of the party’s General Council, Sanae Takaichi as chairwoman of the party’s Policy Research Council and Yoshihide Suga as chief Cabinet secretary. But they are not united, do not possess political clout and are a disparate crowd. Pressure from intraparty factions is dispersed and Ishiba cannot even use 10 percent of his power as LDP secretary general.

A symbolic event occurred May 19 when Ishiba held a fundraising party at Hotel New Otani in Tokyo. At the same time, in another room on the same hotel floor, Abe was meeting with Nobutada Saji, CEO of Suntory Holdings, together with six of his Cabinet ministers including Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, Foreign Minister Kishida and Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara. None of them bothered to show up at Ishiba’s party, and Abe instead proceeded to a nearby restaurant to meet with junior LDP lawmakers — an indication that to Abe, Ishiba is lower than these younger generation lawmakers in importance.

Even though Abe’s party management seems to be producing a certain degree of achievement, he has unexpectedly encountered resistance in his relationship with New Komeito — the junior partner in his coalition government — which is an unstable factor in his political equation.

Regarding his determined attempt to change the interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense, Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist lay organization that backs New Komeito, has issued an unusual statement from its public relations office. It even demanded that each media carry the statement in its entirety.

The statement expressed Soka Gakkai’s support for past governments’ interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution concerning the right to collective self-defense and went on to say that the government should go through a normal procedure to revise the Constitution even if the country were to exercise the right to a limited extent. It also called for the most careful discussions so that a wise conclusion capable of passing historical assessment can be produced.

There are three factors that have led Soka Gakkai to be so adamant: its pride that New Komeito is a “political party for peace” dating back to its inception in the 1960s, a recent rise in the party’s rate of approval for playing the role of putting the brakes on Abe and a series of local elections scheduled to be held next April, which are more important for the party than national elections.

New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi coldly characterized Abe’s private security advisory panel’s report on the right to collective self-defense as “extremely abstract and vague.”

This attitude of New Komeito prompted Abe to change his strategy of taking time and holding in-depth debates on the subject before making a final decision. He instructed LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura to expedite talks within the coalition parties so that an early decision can be reached.

But the Abe administration has a weak point — Abe and his top lieutenants like Suga and Ishiba have few channels of communication with either New Komeito or Soka Gakkai.

Many LDP local legislators have over a long period of time established ties with New Komeito and Soka Gakkai for cooperation in elections. But at the national level, Abe’s coalition can claim a majority in the Upper House only when New Komeito’s seats are counted.

This has led an Upper House member close to Abe to warn that even if Abe succeeds in obtaining parliamentary approval of bills that are needed to exercise the right to collective self-defense, it is possible that his administration can run into an impasse.

Abe is going to take a risky course of action by treading on the tails of two big lions — agricultural cooperatives and Soka Gakkai. No clear prospect is in sight as to whether the Abe administration can gain success by defying these two giant organizations.

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