I have worked as a political journalist for over half a century. I started out covering Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s Cabinet for a Japanese newspaper. As a rookie reporter, I befriended the late Shintaro Abe, who shared the same beat with me. Later he turned to politics when he became secretary to his father-in-law, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. As a politician, he became policy chief of the governing Liberal Democratic Party and foreign minister.
In the late 1980s, Abe and Kiichi Miyazawa were among a few of the “new leaders,” or possible contenders for the post of prime minister. Miyazawa, who later became prime minister, now serves as finance minister. Abe never became prime minister; he was struck down by a fatal illness.
Abe headed a major faction in the LDP that succeeded a prestigious group formerly headed by Kishi and then by Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. Abe was the youngest faction leader. After Abe’s death, former Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka took the helm of the group. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori now heads it.
Mori, as a member of the Abe faction, assisted his boss diligently, and Abe seemed to favor him. I had a rather good image of Mori.
Almost a year ago, Mori was appointed prime minister to replace Keizo Obuchi, who had suffered a stroke. Five LDP heavyweights agreed to name Mori prime minister in a now notorious backroom deal.
Soon after he was appointed prime minister, Mori committed a series of appalling gaffes. First, he said in an address to a rightist group that “Japan is a country of gods with the Emperor at its center,” and urged all Japanese to uphold that tradition.
The remarks were reminiscent of slogans advocated by military leaders and rightists during World War II. I fought in the Pacific War as a student officer with the Japanese Imperial Navy, whose pilots went on suicidal missions wearing headbands emblazoned with Japanese words meaning “Protecting the Land of Gods.” It is my belief that none of those pilots was determined to die for the “country of gods”; most were ready to sacrifice themselves for their relatives and fellow Japanese.
Mori has committed more embarrassing gaffes but has never apologized for them. His worst mistake as prime minister came in connection with the recent sinking of a Japanese fisheries training ship that collided with a U.S. nuclear submarine off Pearl Harbor. Mori was playing golf when he was informed of the disaster and continued playing for hours.
Public-approval ratings for his Cabinet now stand at a dismal level — less than 10 percent. After his “country of gods” remarks last year, they plunged to the 30 percent level.
Few commentators, academics or other pundits now support Mori. Many of my friends say they think Mori is unfit for his job and lacks decency. I believe that Mori, who lacks basic common sense and qualifications for national leadership, is the worst prime minister I have seen in my journalistic career.
Mori recently received an effective vote of confidence when the ruling coalition, which has a majority in the Lower House, voted down an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against his Cabinet; yet the LDP is paving the way for his resignation.
Even stranger is the fact that, despite his lame-duck status, Mori will hold summits with Presidents George W. Bush of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia this month. Media reports from Europe say Mori is not a lame duck, but is politically dead.
How can Mori succeed in the summits when has lost public support and is certain to step down? It would be discourteous of Mori to hold the summits. He is likely to be politely disregarded by U.S. and Russian leaders.
In Washington, Bush is likely to offer apologies for the Hawaii disaster. I wonder how Mori will respond. He will be in no position to hold in-depth talks with Bush on the Japan-U.S. security alliance, the Korean Peninsula situation or ways to beef up security in Asia. Substantive talks with Putin on important issues will also be impossible.
Since he will be leaving office soon, Mori should refrain from attending the summits. At least he should avoid making embarrassing remarks. LDP officials, who seem to think the summits will pave the way for Mori’s departure, are using international diplomacy to expedite his ouster. This marks an ignominious start for Japanese politics in the new century.
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