NEW YORK – Anger is spreading across Japan ahead of next month’s Upper House election, which will likely determine the fate of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government over the years to come.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito hope to win at least 61 of the 121 seats that will be contested in the July 10 election. The opposition camp, including the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, say they will do everything in their power to prevent the ruling coalition from gaining the majority of the seats that will be up for grabs.
The latest in a series of events that infuriated many Japanese voters was the spending scandal that forced Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe to resign in disgrace last week. Masuzoe, a popular scholar-turned-politician, was sharply criticized for paying his personal travel and entertainment expenses out of funds intended for his political activities.
His alleged mixing of personal and official business included weekly trips to his private villa in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, some 100 km southwest of Tokyo, by an official limousine provided by the metropolitan government. Many also raised eyebrows over his lavish style of official traveling, including flying first class and staying at five-star hotels, accompanied by a large entourage, to New York, London, Paris and other places.
Although a team of lawyers that Masuzoe himself appointed to look into the scandal concluded that his use of millions of yen in political funds was “inappropriate but not illegal,” many Tokyoites were not convinced that Masuzoe was fit to lead Japan’s capital with an annual budget of ¥13 trillion. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was reportedly flooded with calls demanding his resignation. Masuzoe at first apologized but refused to step down, claiming that for him to do so would only disrupt the work of the metropolitan government.
His perceived arrogance that he was smarter than others and was thus indispensable as the governor of Tokyo sparked further outrage and resulted in all seven political parties represented in the metropolitan assembly, including the LDP and Komeito, which supported Masuzoe during his election in 2014, deciding to submit a no-confidence motion against him.
Masuzoe succumbed to the ultimatum and announced his resignation, albeit reluctantly. He was the second LDP-backed governor to resign over a financial scandal in three years, following his predecessor, Naoki Inose. The election to choose a new governor, set for July 31, will cost the people of Tokyo an additional ¥5 billion in taxpayer money.
Far down in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, home to more than half of the U.S. military personnel stationed in the country under the bilateral security alliance, people are furious over the murder of a 20-year-old woman in May by an ex-marine working at the Kadena Air Base. The incident shadowed U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Japan for the Group of Seven summit, during which Abe lodged a strong protest when they held a bilateral meeting.
Despite the “sincere condolences and deepest regrets” offered by Obama, the anger in Okinawa showed no sign of abating, since incidents involving U.S. military personnel, including felonies like rape and murder, have taken place repeatedly.
After the incident, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed unprecedented resolutions demanding the exit of U.S. Marines and the revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which gives the U.S. jurisdiction over American military service members and civilian contractors if they violate Japanese laws while engaged in official duties.
Similar demands were made during a huge protest rally held in Naha on Sunday, which organizers said drew an estimated 65,000 angry Okinawans. Gov. Takeshi Onaga said that people in Okinawa have been forced to bear a disproportionately heavy burden of hosting U.S. military bases and that unless SOFA is revised, the concerns that the people of Okinawa have over the bases will not be allayed.
The incident also rekindled the debate over the controversial security legislation that the Abe administration bulldozed through the Diet last fall on the strength of the LDP-Komeito alliance’s comfortable majority.
The new security laws, which went into effect in March, enable the Self-Defense Forces to fight overseas for the first time since World War II, among other revisions. The contentious legislation divided public opinion, with some arguing that the laws were necessary to defend Japan and others contending they were unconstitutional. Many others felt angry about the way in which the legislation was rammed through the Diet with little political consensus and public support.
The Japanese public was surprised again when Abe suddenly announced on June 1 that the planned consumption tax increase from 8 percent to 10 percent would be deferred again, to October 2019. Abe had promised to raise the tax in April 2017 to help find the money for Japan’s swelling social welfare needs.
In reversing his position, Abe cited the looming threat of a global economic crisis, which he said was broadly shared at the G-7 summit. While many supported the decision, taking into consideration Japan’s sluggish economic growth, others, including some experts, warned that without the anticipated additional tax revenue, deep cuts in social security benefits and other painful reforms will become inevitable.
Whether it is over the recent political scandals, the incidents related to the U.S. military in Okinawa, the security legislation, or questions over sustainability of the social welfare system in a rapidly aging society, the widespread growing sense of anger and concern among Japanese voters will be a key factor determining the outcome of the upcoming election.
Based in New York, former United Nations official Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and numerous articles on U.N. and Asian issues.
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