National / Politics

Abe apologizes over arrest of ex-justice minister in vote-buying case

by Satoshi Sugiyama

STAFF WRITER

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday evening apologized over the arrest of a former justice minister he had appointed, saying the action was “regrettable” and that he “feels acutely” his responsibility of having appointed the individual in the first place.

“I apologize to Japanese people from the bottom of my heart,” Abe said at the beginning of his hourlong news conference and bowed his head lightly. “We, the members of the Diet, should take critical public opinion seriously and shape up once again taking (the arrest) as an opportunity.”

Public prosecutors on the same day arrested Katsuyuki Kawai and his lawmaker wife, Anri Kawai, over vote-buying during her successful Upper House election bid last summer. Katsuyuki Kawai previously served as Abe’s adviser and justice minister.

The news conference was held a day after the regular Diet session closed. The ruling and opposition parties have agreed to hold a committee once a week to discuss the government response to the coronavirus, a partial victory for the opposition to go after the administration.

Speaking in front of reporters on Thursday, the prime minister reflected on the past six months in which the novel coronavirus had infected more than 17,600 people and killed over 900 in the country. Japan declared a nationwide state of emergency in mid-April and lifted it in late May. The government is set to loosen regulations on cross-prefectural movement and roll out a contract tracing app Friday.

He lauded his government’s response to the deadly virus by shutting down the country’s border, adopting an aggressive cluster tracing method and minimizing the number of new cases after the government lifted a nationwide state of emergency. The government, though, was subjected to harsh criticism over the stubbornly low number of testing and the rigorous standards a potential patient has to meet to take it.

Ahead of the news conference, Abe revealed the government would consider relaxing entry into Japan — for business purposes — from Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand, countries with low numbers of newly confirmed cases.

Looking ahead, the prime minister encouraged that the country “is moving forward step-by-step toward the new normal in the era of the coronavirus.”

“We must change the way we think,” Abe said. “The path that has been taken that sacrifices our social and economic activities is not tenable. We’ll keep the economy moving for sure while controlling infection risks through methods that are as minimally intrusive as possible. We need efforts that put more emphasis on protecting our jobs and lives.”

But the country’s battle with the coronavirus is far from over. The nation’s capital reported 41 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by the virus. The global pandemic chilled the global economy and worsened the prospect of Japanese economic growth.

During the news conference, Abe did not hesitate to openly show his emotions in responding to questions from the press.

On the recent death of Shigeru Yokota, the father of Megumi Yokota who became the face of the abductees taken by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, Abe cast down his eyes to the podium and lowered his voice expressing his regret for being unable to reunite them.

On naming his successor, he appeared relaxed and chuckled and said that he still has more than a year on his term.

On constitutional amendment, one of his most ambitious long-held goals, he was visibly frustrated with the lack of progress at the Diet debate in the last session. The ruling coalition decided not to submit an amendment to the constitutional referendum law for six consecutive Diet sessions out of consideration for a tight schedule disrupted by the coronavirus and fear of provoking opposition parties.

Abe reiterated his goal of amending the pacifist supreme law while he is in office and spurred lawmakers to have vigorous debates over constitutional amendment at the Commission on the Constitution.

Noting that his LDP had laid out its plan, Abe, raising his voice and gesturing, said “if (lawmakers) are opposed (to the plan), they should have a discussion on why they are opposed.”

The prime minister justified the government’s recent decision to suspend the Aegis Ashore program but said the government will present “a new direction” over the country’s national security strategy through the National Security Council discussion this summer.

“It’s not acceptable to create a vacuum in our defense,” Abe said. “Peace is something that is not given from people but needs to be earned with our own hands.”

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