OSAKA – The Dec. 8 resignation of special Cabinet adviser Koya Nishikawa after it was revealed he participated in a boating trip funded by a Hiroshima egg farm now at the center of a bribery scandal was not just a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Until he lost his Diet seat in 2017, Nishikawa had been a member of a faction of the Liberal Democratic Party led by Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.
Another Nikai faction member, Takamori Yoshikawa, is also involved in the scandal.
At different times, both men have also served as the faction’s secretary-general — making them not just rank-and-file members but powerful executives.
The scandal now threatens to weaken both the faction and its powerful leader.
What is the Nikai faction and who are its members?
The Nikai faction, officially known as the Shisuikai, was founded as an LDP faction in 1999 and is led by Nikai, who has been its chairman since 2012. It currently comprises 48 Diet members (38 from the Lower House, 10 from the Upper House), which is just one more than the faction of former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Shisuikai traces its roots to an older faction headed by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.
The 81-year-old Nikai is Japan’s longest serving secretary-general and currently one of the party’s most powerful figures behind the scenes.
It was Nikai who convinced the largest faction leaders to back Suga as prime minister after Shinzo Abe resigned from office, including Finance Minister Taro Aso and former chief Cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, whose faction includes Abe among its members. They did so despite longstanding tensions and differences with Nikai, and doubts about Suga.
Nikai’s influence is also reflected in fundraising ability. Of the seven LDP factions, his raised the most money in 2019, collecting a total of ¥303 million — an increase of nearly ¥36 million over the previous year.
The 54-member Aso faction came second, collecting about ¥280.6 million, and the Kishida faction raised ¥275 million. The 98-member Hosoda faction finished fourth, with ¥239.3 million in donations.
How is the faction affected by Nishikawa’s situation?
Until he lost his seat in the 2017 Lower House election, Nishikawa was a member of the Nikai faction and had served as farm minister in 2014 and 2015. The month after losing his seat, he was named a special adviser to the Cabinet by Suga’s predecessor, Abe.
Nishikawa became an adviser to the Hiroshima Prefecture-based Akita Foods Co. in January 2018, and remained close to Nikai. When Suga succeeded Abe in September of this year, he retained Nishikawa in his role as a special adviser.
But after Akita Foods became caught up in bribery allegations in a separate scandal, Nishikawa was discovered to have participated in a boating trip sponsored by the firm in July, along with senior officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Questions were raised about whether his job as an adviser to the company created a conflict of interest with his role as a Cabinet adviser, and it was discovered that the advisory fees had not been included in his political funds reports.
Nishikawa resigned from his position citing personal reasons. But the investigation into the bribery allegations continues.
Who else close to Nikai is implicated in the scandal?
Takamori Yoshikawa, another former farm minister, is also a member of Nikai’s faction.
Tokyo prosecutors are investigating whether Akita Foods paid Yoshikawa ¥5 million in bribes between October 2018 and September 2019, during his tenure as minister. He has denied the allegations, though he has resigned from all of his senior LDP positions.
Asked about the situation on Dec. 7, Nikai told reporters that he’d yet to hear a sufficient explanation from Yoshikawa about the charges.
Are there other concerns related to the Nikai faction within the LDP?
Last December, Nikai faction member Tsukasa Akimoto, a Lower House member formerly with the LDP, was arrested on bribery charges. Akimoto had headed a government panel on legalizing casino resorts, and was indicted earlier this year on charges of receiving nearly ¥7.6 million in bribes from a Chinese casino operator that was lobbying to win a casino license.
Akimoto was also charged with asking the firm’s advisers to commit perjury when asked about the scandal. While Akimoto has left the LDP, he remains in the Nikai faction as a special member.
Nikai is also said to be irritating other LDP faction leaders. With a Lower House election due to be called by autumn of next year, the party is now deciding who to back in single district seats.
As LDP secretary-general, Nikai controls which candidates stand for the party at election time and has great influence over how much party funding they receive. He appears to now be using that influence to push his own candidates in areas of the country already represented by members of other factions.
One such seat is in the third district of Hiroshima Prefecture, which includes part of the city of Hiroshima.
In the 2017 Lower House election, the seat was won by Katsuyuki Kawai, who received ¥150 million, with Nikai’s approval, for the campaign. Kawai rose to become justice minister in 2019, only to resign in October 2019 and then be arrested in June 2020 on allegations of vote-buying.
Kawai’s wife, Anri, an Upper House member, was also arrested. While they are no longer LDP members, Nikai has allowed Anri Kawai to remain a special faction member, and both are still Diet members.
But for the next election, Komeito, which is close to Nikai, has announced that rather than support an LDP candidate in the seat, it would like to field its own.
Nikai has said he wants to cooperate with Komeito to support their candidate. That has created friction between his faction and the local LDP chapter, which wants to field an LDP candidate, as well as Kishida, who also represents Hiroshima.
In the Niigata second district, Hosoda faction member Kenichi Hosoda (no relation) is looking to regain the seat he lost in 2017 to former Democratic Party member Eichiro Washio.
Hosoda was returned to the Diet as a proportional representative. But Washio joined the LDP and entered the Nikai faction in September 2019, setting up a contest between the Hosoda and Nikai factions over which man would be the party’s district candidate in the next vote.
Asako Omi, who represents Gunma’s first district, is another Hosoda faction member. Nikai wants current proportional representative Yasutake Nakasone, grandson of former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and a member of Nikai’s own faction, to have the seat.
Nikai’s attempts to have his way in these districts risks angering members of other factions, and could create problems with local LDP chapters if they are not behind his choices.
How might these issues affect the Suga administration?
Suga’s popularity continues to fall, and he only became prime minister with backing from the other major factions, which could turn against him, and Nikai.
The Nishikawa and Yoshikawa scandals, as well as the Kawai case, will keep media and opposition party attention on Suga and Nikai, risking further dents to his popularity.
Losses by Nikai-backed candidates in a Lower House election could further erode Nikai’s power as secretary-general, regardless of whether Suga remains at the helm following the election.
But with Suga relying on Nikai, he could also find himself out of power after an election — even if the ruling parties win by a sizable margin — as other factions decide they no longer want someone as prime minister who is as close to Nikai.
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