National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Blundering minister's downfall reignites criticism of Japan's seniority-based Cabinet decisions

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Following the dramatic resignation of blunder-prone Olympics and cybersecurity minister Yoshitaka Sakurada, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reappointed Shunichi Suzuki, his immediate predecessor, to the portfolio Thursday, a quick-fix measure experts said was meant to minimize damage ahead of a series of key elections.

On Wednesday, Sakurada submitted a letter of resignation to Abe, saying a remark he made earlier in the day deeply offended the people suffering from the 2011 quake and tsunami disasters in the Tohoku region.

However, it is widely believed it was Abe who effectively fired Sakurada, who has repeatedly made headlines by making gaffes that have significantly damaged the reputation of Abe’s administration.

Experts said Sakurada’s numerous blunders underlined anew the shortcomings of Japan’s old-fashioned political custom that has often seen the prime minister prioritize seniority and factionalism in recruiting Cabinet members — rather than their actual capabilities.

At a party hosted by fellow Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Hinako Takahashi, Sakurada, a Chiba representative, reportedly said the Diet member is “more important than reconstruction” in Tohoku.

That was only a day after he repeatedly mispronounced the name of one of the tsunami-devastated districts in Tohoku as he spoke at the Diet. After submitting his letter of resignation, Sakurada told reporters he is “sorry for making remarks that hurt the feelings of (the people from) disaster-hit areas.”

Abe, meanwhile, told reporters Thursday morning that “every member in my Cabinet has to sincerely accept criticism and work toward living up to public expectations by dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly” to recovery efforts.

After meeting with the prime minister and accepting Sakurada’s former role, Suzuki reiterated the government’s commitment to making the 2020 Summer Games the “recovery Olympics” in hopes of shoring up Tohoku’s struggling tourism industry. Having been reinstated, “I would once again like to do my job so that people in the affected areas will feel close to the Olympics,” Suzuki said.

Up until Wednesday, Abe had vouched for Sakurada, even though the minister repeatedly put his foot into his mouth and drew criticism from opposition lawmakers.

Sakurada made global headlines in November when he surprised the nation by revealing to the Diet that he had never used a personal computer, even though he doubled as the nation’s cybersecurity minister. He also misspoke when giving figures and names in his Diet answers, and was clueless when asked basic questions about the Olympics.

When competitive swimmer Rikako Ikee, an Olympics medalist hopeful, revealed in February she had been diagnosed with leukemia, Sakurada said, “She is a potential gold medalist, an athlete for whom we have great expectations. I’m really disappointed.”

Sakurada was tapped for the Cabinet not because of his competence but the sheer length of his political career, said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political science at the International University of Health and Welfare.

When Abe decided to reshuffle his Cabinet in October, Sakurada was among the LDP lawmakers who were on the “waiting list” for portfolios — typically those elected five times or more who are recommended by their faction leaders as being next in line.

As such, “in Japan, as long as you’re elected a certain number of times and have the backing of your faction leader, you can be tapped for not-so-important Cabinet posts that pretty much everyone can handle — assuming, of course, you are supported by a group of capable bureaucrats,” Kawakami said.

“So the sad reality is that those posts are sometimes overseen by politicians who are not necessarily talented.”

But Sakurada’s latest gaffe regarding Tohoku was “on a whole different level” from his past slip-ups because it made it sound as if he was prioritizing politicians over the public, Kawakami said.

“The LDP has a relatively weak support base in Tohoku so I think the Abe administration was afraid keeping the minister who publicly disregarded Tohoku could further erode the LDP’s chances of performing well in Tohoku constituencies at the summer Upper House election,” he said.

That view was echoed by Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a political science professor at Toyo University.

Although Abe initially gravitated toward experience and expertise in naming his Cabinet members after his return to power in 2012, he brought many first-timers onto his team in the October reshuffle.

“His administration was enjoying stability at the time so I think Abe felt he can afford to take some risk by recruiting lawmakers with little expertise. In a way, that was a reflection of his arrogance, I think,” Yakushiji said.

Unfortunately for Abe, Yakushiji added, the recent turn of events has grown eerily reminiscent of what is remembered as “resignation dominoes” from 2007, when a series of ministerial scandals and lapses sent approval ratings for Abe’s first Cabinet plummeting to a critical level, leading to his crushing defeat in the summer Upper House election that year.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if memories of 2007 are flashing through the mind of Abe,” Yakushiji said.

But the professor said he is skeptical that Sakurada’s departure will have severe political consequences going forward as the LDP braces for a series of elections, including the latter half of unified local elections and the summer Upper House poll.

“It’s not like Sakurada is accused of committing serious misconduct that affects national politics. In the minds of many among the Japanese public, he’s been seen as something of a joke and everybody knew that he’d be out sooner or later,” he said.

Just last week, Ichiro Tsukada, deputy land minister, stepped down amid outcries over his recent suggestion that he had influenced a major highway project to suit the interests of Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Tsukada’s comment ignited public criticism because exercising such influence would be tantamount to the old pork-barrel politics of the LDP. Tsukada’s comment drew particular attention because he said he employed sontaku, or the act of surmising what your boss really wants and taking actions to achieve it without receiving any clear instructions or orders from that person.

Sontaku was a buzzword in a cronyism scandal involving Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen and Akie Abe, the wife of the prime minister. Abe has denied he used any influence to favor the school operator.

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