The last few days were rather unusual for the prime minister’s office in Nagatacho, Japan’s political center: Both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga were not there.
The prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary are the No. 1 and No. 2 in any administration. To be ready for any contingency, at least one is always present in Tokyo, preferably near the prime minister’s office.
But on Wednesday, Abe traveled as far as Fukushima Prefecture to meet with nuclear evacuees and left the office again Thursday to visit a night school in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward.
On Wednesday and Thursday, meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was on an overnight trip to Okinawa and Yamaguchi prefectures to inspect U.S. military bases.
“While the prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary are not in Tokyo, designated deputy chief Cabinet secretaries would handle (an emergency). There’s no vacuum in the command and control system in the prime minister’s office,” Katsunobu Kato, one of the deputy chief Cabinet secretaries, stated at Wednesday’s regular news conference.
That may be, but having both top officials away from Tokyo carries some political risk. In February 2001, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was harshly criticized when he kept playing golf in Yokohama after learning that the Ehime Maru fisheries training ship had sunk in a collision with a U.S. submarine off Hawaii.
As it turned out, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda was in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, his home district, at the same time. The administration drew a storm of criticism, and Mori was eventually forced to resign.
Suga, elected from Yokohama, often complains that he is unable to visit his constituency very often even though it’s so close to Tokyo.
That Abe and Suga were gone at the same time this week is likely a reflection of how important they view the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Fukushima and Okinawa.
The Fukushima race in October could affect Abe’s ability to restart the nation’s nuclear power plants, which were all shut down to revamp safety measures after the triple core meltdown in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Okinawa election in November, in which the Liberal Democratic Party-backed incumbent, Hirokazu Nakaima, faces an uphill battle, will have a huge impact on efforts to finally relocate contentious U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Nago.
On Wednesday, LDP headquarters in Tokyo formally notified the Fukushima chapter that the party will officially support Vice Gov. Masao Uchibori in next month’s election.
Uchibori is also supported by the rival Democratic Party of Japan and Social Democratic Party. The LDP gave up on fielding its own candidate and is instead trying to downplay its policy differences with other major parties by backing Uchibori.
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