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Tougher times awaiting Abe?

Sentaku Magazine

A big, unexpected pitfall awaited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when he toured the Middle East in January, close on the heels of a victory his Liberal Democratic Party scored in the Lower House election in December.

Just as he was trying to give boost to his favorite theme of promoting “proactive pacifism”or proactive contribution to peace by serving as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, threatened to kill two Japanese hostages, presenting a serious test for his crisis management ability. Some within the LDP have gone so far as to wonder why he had to make the trip at such a time.

Respect should be accorded to Abe for his willingness to serve as a mediator of good will in the Middle East conflict, and the terrorist acts by the Islamic State must be denounced. His travels to many parts of the world to pursue his global diplomacy may also be praiseworthy.

But doubt arises as to whether Abe made the right decision by choosing the Middle East as the destination of his first overseas trip in 2015, a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, especially in view of unpredictability and dark clouds hovering over the world following the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo publishing house in Paris.

Besides, it is hard to imagine that Japan has sufficient diplomatic capability to serve as a mediator in the Middle East where the mysterious Islamic State fanatics are gaining strength.

Yet Abe pledged assistance in the amount of $200 million in a bid to make his country a member of the coalition of the willing aimed at sieging the Islamic State, only to face a demand from the Islamic State for a ransom of the same amount as a condition for releasing the two hostages.

What happened proved that Japan’s check diplomacy is quixotic, driving home to the whole world that Japan would provide only monetary aid and that it would pay money if threatened.

Taku Yamasaki, former LDP vice president, says that the fundamental problem in Abe’s diplomacy lies in his phrase “proactive pacifism.” “For now, his actions are limited to providing money to the coalition of the willing. But what will he do once Japan is asked to do more? As long as he sticks to the phrase proactive pacifism, the question of exercising the right to collective self-defense and, moreover, participation in collective security schemes will crop up.”

So far Abe has ruled out Japan’s participation in any collective security plan, and is thinking of participation in mine sweeping operations in the Middle East as a partial exercise of the right to collective self-defense. But Yamasaki says that should a fifth Middle East war breaks out in that region, this time against the Islamic State, Japan would be asked to play a greater role.

“Instead of sticking his head into an explosive place, he should direct all his efforts for improving Japan’s relations with China and South Korea,” Yamasaki says, striking Abe’s weak point.

The hostage case proved to be an extra burden for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man. Under the government’s cardinal rule of giving top priority to saving human lives, deciding which communication route to use for negotiations with the militants and how to respond to their demand for the ransom was the job of Suga, who has control over secret funds of the prime minister’s office.

This means that regardless of the outcome, the ultimate responsibility would rests with Suga. He would get no credit if things go right because that is expected of him but he would be blamed if they go wrong.

Besides the hostage issue, three other matters haunt Suga. One is what impact the Jan. 11 gubernatorial election in Saga Prefecture, in which the candidate supported by the LDP lost, will have on a series of nationwide prefectural and municipal elections scheduled for April.

Suga personally took the lead in support of former Takeo Mayor Keisuke Hiwatashi in hopes of giving boost to “Abenomics,” which calls for, among other things, making a dent in traditional bureaucratic regulations. Hiwatashi was known for privatizing his city’s municipally-run hospital. But he lost to Yoshinori Yamaguchi, a former bureaucrat of the internal affairs ministry who garnered votes from farming cooperatives and labor unions, which united against Suga’s high-handed manners. He even went to Saga Prefecture to put a pressure on support groups — an act criticized as overstepping the authority of LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki.

Having been dealt a blow he had never experienced in his political career, Suga now appears to have lost some of his almighty power. Some within the government have started to say that the government should not rush on important issues like the talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and instead should wait until after the April local elections are over.

A second issue that confronts the chief government spokesman is the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Island to a new site further north off the coast of Henoko in the city of Nago.

The cordial relations between Abe’s government and Okinawa ended when incumbent Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who had approved the construction of the new base off Henoko, badly lost his bid for reelection in the gubernatorial election in November last year, to Takeshi Onaga, former Naha mayor. The LDP also suffered a complete defeat in Okinawa’s single-seat constituencies in the Lower House election in December.

Since then, Okinawa no longer accedes to the central government’s plans for the new base, even if the latter offers large sums of money for the prefecture’s economic development. Even some LDP members criticized the government for behaving like a child when both Abe and Suga refused to meet with the newly elected Okinawa governor Onaga during his visit to Tokyo.

Even the U.S. government is reported to have questioned the wisdom of Abe and his administration sticking to the Henoko base plan despite the “no” votes cast against it twice by Okinawa residents and are said to have suggested that Tokyo search for an alternative plan.

The third problem confronting Suga is the content of a statement Abe is expected to issue on Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The key issue is whether Abe will refer to Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula and aggression into the Chinese mainland, as did former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary in 1995 and former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the 60th anniversary in 2005. This is being closely watched not only by China and South Korea but also by the United States.

Suga wanted to make the statement as unprovocative as possible through advance discussions among knowledgeable persons. But in an interview with NHK on Jan. 25, Abe stated that he would not repeat the word aggression.

This perhaps brought back to Suga’s mind the nightmarish memory of Abe making a visit in late 2013 to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with the war dead. At that time, Suga was unable to restrain Abe. He may be accused of convening a meaningless meeting of intellectuals to discuss the content of the prime minister’s statement.

Having supported the Abe administration as its top strategist, Suga is now entering into a time of unprecedented ordeal.

A turn of the tide is a dreadful thing. Some have even started to criticize Abe’s decision to dissolve the Lower House, which was hailed as a major success. None other than Koizumi has said “I do not understand why Abe dissolved the Lower House.”

Not only did the LDP fail to increase the number of its seats in the election, the Party for Next Generations, a “second LDP,” lost miserably. Yoshimi Watanabe of the now defunct Your Party, who was one of Abe’s closest associates, lost his seat.

At the same time, the Japanese Communist Party, a tough opposition party, doubled its Lower House seats. The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, won more seats than it had before the election and is now headed by Katsuya Okada, who is much more skilled in debate than his predecessor Banri Kaieda, who was easy to deal with.

All these factors are certain to make it difficult for Abe’s LDP to steer Diet proceedings.

The biggest setback for Abe’s government is that the prime minister will no longer be able to exercise his prerogative of dissolving the Lower House for some time to come. The power to draft the national budget, the power to appoint Cabinet members and LDP executives and the power to dissolve the Lower House are the three major prerogatives of a prime minister — the last being politically the most powerful. If the prime minister handles it lightly, he will lose power and authority as a leader.

Some political insiders say that Abe could have postponed the consumption tax rate hike from 8 percent to 10 percent, originally scheduled for October this year, using only his leadership rather than relying on a dissolution of the Lower House. From this point of view, Suga is likely to pay dearly for sinister consequences resulting from having had his boss dissolve the chamber prematurely.

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