National / Politics | 70 YEARS AFTER THE WAR'S END

Abe's nationalism reflected in conservative political movement, but polls show voter dissent

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

This is the fourth report in a five-part series looking at the impact of World War II still being felt in Japanese society.

The hot political season is back as the nation observes Aug. 15, which is always an emotional date as it marks Japan’s surrender in World War II — and this year is the 70th anniversary of that fateful event.

The event is taking place amid a political landscape defined by heated confrontation between pacifist liberals and nationalistic conservatives.

Tens of thousands of pacifist citizens have been taking to the streets on recent weekends in Tokyo to protest two security bills submitted to the Diet by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-leaning administration.

Major national newspapers have been clearly split into two camps: the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun, and the pro-government, conservative Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun. Such clear antagonism in the media’s editorial stances has been seldom observed in postwar Japan.

At the center of public concern is Abe’s Cabinet, which is often portrayed as revisionist in terms of history and bent on departing from Japan’s postwar pacifism.

Lawmakers and political insiders say more voters are feeling sympathetic toward the nationalistic stance of conservative lawmakers like Abe because of festering diplomatic rows with China and South Korea.

But at the same time, many voters have mixed feelings toward Abe’s nationalistic agenda, in particular the security bills, which have caused the support rate for Abe’s Cabinet to hit a record low.

Tadae Takubo, a professor emeritus of international politics at Kyorin University, is a longtime conservative polemicist and now serves as chairman of Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), the country’s largest lobby group for nationalistic conservatism.

Takubo believes the Japanese people today are leaning more toward conservatism.

“Japan has shifted to the right, and the Abe administration was born,” Takubo said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Takubo pointed out that a number of political blunders by — and the ensuing collapse of — the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, a center-left government in power from 2009 to 2012, deeply disenchanted liberal-leaning voters.

In addition, China’s continued rise as a military power and Japan’s deepening diplomatic rifts with North and South Korea have aroused “an indescribable anxiety among the public,” Takubo said, which is lending momentum to the country’s conservatives.

The swelling ranks of Takubo’s own Japan Conference is probably testimony to the popular tilt toward nationalistic conservatism.

A total of 281 lawmakers — or 39 percent of all 716 Diet members — belong to a group of lawmakers affiliated with Japan Conference called Nippon Kaigi Kokkai Giin Kondan Kai (Japan Conference Diet Member Discussion Society, hereafter referred to as Kondai Kai), Japan Conference says.

According to an internal paper recently obtained by The Japan Times, eight of the 20 ministers of Abe’s Cabinet are executive members of the group. Abe himself is listed as a “special adviser.”

The September 2009 issue of Nippon no Ibuki, a monthly magazine published by Japan Conference, showed that another seven Cabinet members are nonexecutive members of Kondan Kai.

The executives also include Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki, LDP policy chief Tomomi Inada, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Yosuke Isozaki, an adviser to the prime minister.

Japan Conference, which now boasts 289 local chapters and 38,000 fee-paying members, calls for revising the pacifist postwar Constitution.

The lobby group also argues Japan’s military power should be bolstered, moral education based on Japanese traditional values should be strengthened and politicians should visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.

Left-wing publications often portray Japan Conference as a monstrous puppet master to many right-leaning politicians.

Takubo, however, denied Japan Conference has such strong influence over lawmakers or the government.

“I haven’t seen Mr. Abe . . . since he became the prime minister (in December 2012),” said Takubo, who became chairman of Japan Conference in April. (Prior to that, Takubo had long served as its key executive member.)

He said those who consider the group to be a puppet master overestimate its capacity. “We don’t have such power,” Takubo said.

According to Eiichiro Washio, a Democratic Party of Japan member who serves as director general of Kondan Kai, the group is a loose network of lawmakers, and not all of them are ardent supporters of policies advocated by Japan Conference.

“Japan Conference has adopted many resolutions, but Diet members can join (Kondan Kai) even if they don’t agree to them,” Washio said, referring to positions that Japan Conference has adopted on various political issues.

“We are not a group that is trying to achieve something in an organized manner,” Washio said.

Indeed, many lawmakers casually register their names at numerous Diet member associations with various agendas, hoping that doing so will help them win election campaigns. How many Kondan Kai members are strong supporters of Japan Conference remains unclear.

Japan Conference’s website says only 35 Diet members attended Kondan Kai’s annual general meeting in December 2013. Another 43 member lawmakers sent representatives.

Washio, who describes himself as a conservative, said he believes the large number of lawmakers at the affiliated society is a reflection of widespread sympathy toward various policies Japan Conference advocates.

But voters feel ambivalent about Abe’s right-leaning administration, and the traditional liberal-conservative divide in politics is no longer enough to explain their mixed sentiment, Washio said.

“People want (the government) to be tough in dealing with China and South Korea. But they also worry about how far the activities of the Self-Defense Forces will be expanded” under Abe’s initiative, Washio said.

Given such mixed feelings, traditional political labels of “liberal” or “conservative” have already lost their appeal to general voters, Washio said.

Abe, too, appears to be well aware of the public ambivalence toward his nationalistic agenda.

He has said the biggest lesson he learned from his failed first prime ministership of 2006 and 2007 was a huge gap between what he wanted to promote — notably constitutional revisions — and what people were interested in, namely issues involving the public pension system.

“To carry out a major policy agenda, deepening understanding of the people is important, but it takes time,” Abe said during an interview with the weekly Shukan Bunshun that was published in May 2013.

To achieve time-consuming goals “you need first to stabilize your administration,” Abe said.

Thus in his second prime ministership, Abe first prioritized economic policies to boost his popularity, through ultra-loose monetary-easing measures and aggressive public spending.

This economic-centered approach initially succeeded. His approval rate in media polls remained historically high until this past spring, apparently giving Abe the confidence to submit the controversial security bills to the current Diet session.

But Abe may have misread the sentiment of the people once again.

Voters have reacted negatively to his security bills, which would greatly expand the potential overseas missions of the SDF. The Cabinet’s approval rating has fallen rapidly and now lags its disapproval rate for the first time since the launch of Abe’s second administration.

An NHK poll this month found a disapproval rating of 46 percent for the Cabinet, exceeding the approval rate of 37 percent.

The support rate for the LDP, meanwhile, stood at 34.3 percent, down 0.4 points from July.

On the other hand, the support rate for the DPJ, regarded as a center-left party, has not increased much and still lags far behind that of the LDP, media polls have shown.

According to the same NHK poll, the support rate for the DPJ was 10.9 percent this month, up 3.2 points from July. The DPJ has strongly opposed Abe’s security bills.

This clearly indicates that being “liberal” alone is no longer a feasible strategy for an opposition party in Japan, Washio argued. They should instead focus more on the economic agenda, he added, particularly on how to reduce poverty and the disparity of wealth, to differentiate themselves from the LDP.

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