National / Politics

Abe slams U.S. vehicle tariff hikes as 'unacceptable' during Diet leaders' debate

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported move to impose tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported vehicles as unwarranted and offensive.

“If the U.S. slaps Japan, its ally, with tariffs like this, that would be incomprehensible and unacceptable,” Abe told the head of the Democratic Party for the People, Yuichiro Tamaki, during a debate between party leaders in the Diet.

The Trump administration recently launched a Section 232 national security probe into whether vehicle and parts imports are harming the U.S.’s domestic auto industry — a step that could provide Trump with the legal basis to institute tariffs. The move followed yet another surprise announcement by the Trump administration in March that Japan, unlike Washington’s other key allies and partners, wouldn’t be excluded from steel and aluminium tariffs.

Tamaki said the hike, if realized, would “deal a severe blow to Japan’s economy.”

“Did you get an advance notice on this measure?” Tamaki asked Abe.

“You yourself often claim that Japan and the U.S. are 100 percent together. If there had been no heads-up from the U.S. side on this matter, I’d have to suspect that we may not be seen as their ally.”

Abe dodged Tamaki’s question, but stressed he had explained to Trump in their past conversations that Japanese automobile makers are “vastly contributing” to the U.S. economy by creating jobs.

The opposition also asked questions over the ever-evolving Moritomo Gakuen scandal, where favoritism allegations are leveled at Abe’s wife, Akie.

Last week, the Finance Ministry submitted reams of documents detailing the lead-up to the 2016 deal involving a massively discounted sale of state-owned land to the nationalist school operator, which once had a close tie with Akie.

These records showed Saeko Tani, Akie’s former aide, making an inquiry with the Finance Ministry to convey Moritomo’s request for a reduction in the rental price for the land, apparently contradicting Abe’s past denials of the first lady’s involvement in the deal.

Last year, the prime minister vowed in the Diet to quit his seat if either he or Akie were ever found to have had anything to do with the deal.

On Wednesday, Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, took issue with what he called an apparent attempt by Abe to narrow the definition of Akie’s involvement during Monday’s budget committee meeting, where he had insisted the first lady had nothing to do with the land sale in terms of the context that she never used her influence in exchange for a bribe from Moritomo.

Abe’s mention of bribery as a condition for Akie’s involvement in the deal seemed to be a significant downgrade from his Diet assertions last year that he and his wife were “not involved at all” in the discounted price of the land, potentially underscoring his desire to sidestep opposition calls that he should resign in honor of his promise.

In response to Edano’s question, Abe quoted his past Diet statements from last year that already linked bribery — or the lack thereof — to the definition of his and Akie’s involvement in the land sale. “It is crystal clear, therefore, that I did not bring up a new definition all of a sudden,” Abe said.

Wednesday’s presidential debate, the Japanese equivalent of Britain’s Question Time (QT) system, was the first to take place in 17 months, having last convened in December 2016.

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