Reference | FYI

The Kawai scandal and the race to succeed Shinzo Abe

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Hiroshima-based Liberal Democratic Party Diet member Anri Kawai admitted in January to receiving ¥150 million from LDP headquarters prior to the July 2019 Upper House election. Kawai, a novice in national politics, is also the wife of disgraced former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who was forced to resign in October over alleged campaign violations by Anri. But behind the scandal is a proxy war between the LDP’s most powerful members over who will eventually succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

What happened with Anri Kawai and the July 2019 Upper House Election?

Seven candidates ran for the two seats up for grabs in the Hiroshima constituency.

Shinji Morimoto, the joint opposition candidate backed by the Democratic Party For the People, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Social Democratic Party, received the most votes, followed by Anri Kawai. But the LDP decided to field two candidates in the race. The other was veteran lawmaker Kensei Mizote, who was vying for a sixth term. He ended in third place, losing to Kawai by about 26,000 votes.

Following his loss, Mizote criticized the LDP for running two candidates in Hiroshima. Anri Kawai, who decided to run less than three months before the election, had been a member of the Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly and was making her first foray into national politics.

Why did she enter the election?

The answer has to do with factional politics and personal rivalries at the top levels of the LDP.

One of the main candidates to succeed Abe is LDP policy chair and former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima in the Lower House. Kishida is also head of Kochikai, one of the political factions in the LDP. The 46-member Kochikai was founded in 1957 by former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, who succeeded Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather.

In 1960, Kishi was forced to step down after ramming the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty though the Diet — an action that prompted violent demonstrations. Ikeda followed him by preaching “tolerance and patience” and by focusing on building Japan’s economy, touting his popular and successful plan to “double Japan’s income” by 1970.

By the early 1990s, leadership of the faction had passed to former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, another Hiroshima-based politician. Miyazawa was distantly related to Kishida, who assumed leadership of Kochikai in 2012.

A number of Hiroshima-based Diet members belong to Kochikai. One of them was Mizote. But another was his Lower House colleague Katsuyuki Kawai — a close Abe ally and aide to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man.

Though Suga belongs to no faction, he is linked to Katsuyuki Kawai through an intraparty group called Himawarikai (the Sunflower Group), and is considered another candidate to succeed Abe.

Worried that the veteran Mizote, who had criticized Abe in 2012, just before his return to power, would be a powerful ally in Kishida’s quest to become prime minister, Suga encouraged Anri Kawai to run for one of the Hiroshima seats despite her lack of experience, and even went there to campaign on her behalf.

What happened after she won?

A defeated Mizote angrily criticized the decision by LDP headquarters to field two candidates in Hiroshima, calling it “stupid.” Then, a few months later, weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported that some of Anri Kawai’s campaign staffers were paid ¥30,000 per day, twice the legal limit of ¥15,000 per day.

Her husband, who managed her campaign, didn’t confirm the allegations but resigned as justice minister. That was later followed by allegations that LDP headquarters actually pumped an enormous ¥150 million into Anri Kawai’s campaign.

That was widely criticized as excessive, including by the LDP’s Hiroshima chapter, as the sum was 10 times more than what LDP headquarters allocated for Mizote’s campaign.

Who exactly authorized the money for Anri Kawai remains unclear, although she admitted receiving it and said it was not illegal. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai confirmed the amount but said it was not a problem.

At the LDP, decision-making authority for campaign funding lies with the president (Abe), secretary-general and election headquarters.

What happens now and what will be the political fallout for rest of the LDP?

The opposition is pursuing the matter in Diet questioning and will pressure Anri Kawai to explain herself or resign. They will also ask Abe to explain what happened, though he has recently refused to do so. Yet there is unease in the LDP over the spending revelations and fears it could create a public backlash.

Although the Kishida-Suga rivalry has brought the battle for prime minister into sharper focus, the Kawai scandals appear to be hurting Suga more.

Other potential candidates include longtime Abe rival and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who heads the 19-member Suigetsukai faction. Ishiba has already said that both Kawais have a responsibility to explain what happened, given that Hiroshima prosecutors are investigating them for alleged campaign violations.

Another potential candidate, Defense Minister Taro Kono, who belongs to the 55-member Shikokai faction headed by Finance Minister and close Abe ally Taro Aso, could also find himself under fire for the scandal.

During the July campaign, Kono traveled to Hiroshima to stump for Anri Kawai, calling her his friend in a Twitter post. Finally, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, also mentioned as a possible future prime minister, has remained mum on the scandal.

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