As a result of its media-bashing session and growing public distrust of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to circumvent the Constitution, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party now finds itself struggling to pass security bills aimed at giving the Self-Defense Forces greater leeway overseas.
To minimize the impact on deliberations in the Diet, the LDP wasted little time Saturday announcing it had punished four lawmakers for blaming the media for the weak public support on the bills, and for calling to put financial pressure on media outlets that report critically on the issue.
The anti-media remarks were made at a meeting organized by Minoru Kihara, a 45-year-old member of the Lower House elected from the Kumamoto No. 1 district. He was sacked as head of the LDP’s Youth Division and suspended from holding any other post for a year.
The other three members, also from the Lower House, were Takahiro Inoue of the Fukuoka No. 1 district, Hideo Onishi from Tokyo’s No. 16 district, and Takashi Nagao, from the Kinki proportional representation district. These three drew reprimands, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said.
Of the four, Onishi had been reprimanded in July last year for directing sexist jeers against female opposition lawmaker Sayuri Uenishi during a Diet debate three months earlier.
Tanigaki apologized for the media-bashing session on a TV program Sunday morning.
“I regret what happened. Their remarks were careless and caused misunderstanding about the LDP’s stance on the freedom of the press,” Tanigaki said.
The fracas has generated a crisis in the LDP, which is pushing hard to pass the contentious bills through the Diet and recently had the session extended by a record 95 days to Sept. 27, just to get it done.
“If something occurs again, the bills won’t clear (the Diet),” a former Cabinet minister said.
The remarks Thursday by Kihara and the three other LDP lawmakers come at a time when the LDP-led government is already under fire for appearing to take liberties with the Constitution. Three highly regarded legal experts asked to give testimony in the Diet said the government should retract the security bills based on Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9 because they are against the war-renouncing Constitution.
“One careless mistake could become a fatal one,” Tanigaki told a news conference Friday when he announced the four politicians were being punished.
Another senior LDP lawmaker said, “Mr. Kihara and others did things that could affect the deliberations of the bills at an important time. Their responsibility is unavoidable.”
Initially, Abe was seen as reluctant to reprimand the four. Earlier Friday, he told a Diet panel that the remarks in question were made during a private meeting of the LDP. “I doubt if it is (the) right thing to punish over the remarks.”
But Abe obviously changed his mind, given the potential repercussions on the security bills.
Although Abe has said his government will fully explain about the security bills before the Diet, the media-targeting incident has prompted speculation that the scenario for clearing the bills by mid-July is becoming uncertain.
As a result, the free hand the government once enjoyed in steering the debate in the Diet has been hindered, one LDP lawmaker said.
The opposition parties aim to exploit the series of events to grill Abe on his responsibility and prevent the ruling bloc from going ahead with the vote on the security bills.
Commenting on the incident involving the four Abe loyalists, Mito Kakizawa, secretary-general of the opposition Japan Innovation Party, said: “They meant to support the prime minister but it backfired. I can only call them idiots.”
“The support rate for the Cabinet will decline further,” he said.
Despite efforts by Abe’s administration, a majority of the public is against the security bills. In a Kyodo News survey about a week ago, some 56.7 percent of the respondents said they think the bills are unconstitutional and 29.2 percent said they are not.
The same telephone survey showed that 63.1 percent of respondents expressed opposition to passing the bills in the current Diet session, compared with 26.2 percent who supported it.
On Friday evening, a group of students gathered near JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo to protest the bills.
Miki Satake, a 23-year-old member of SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s), a student group against the security legislation, said she cannot condone the four lawmakers’ remarks.
“Neither I nor junior LDP lawmakers know what war is. I want them to think properly about the meaning of their remarks, which is not based on real experience.”
Nonfiction novelist Shinobu Yoshioka said he was stunned by the LDP lawmakers’ anti-media remarks.
“Their way of thinking is like that of the prewar period. I can’t believe they live in the 21st century,” he said.
Citing the changing security environment in East Asia, the Abe government has emphasized the importance of the security bills, which will allow the SDF to use collective self-defense, or help allies under armed attack even if Japan itself is not being attacked.