Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to call an early Lower House election, due this Sunday, was a puzzle. Together with its coalition partner, Komeito, his Liberal Democratic Party held an unassailable majority. Even though the newly formed Kibo no To (Party of Hope) under Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike seemed certain to eat into that majority, he was still safe. Maybe he felt he could somehow exploit the current opposition disarray to his advantage.
Koike has an attractive personality. But speaking as someone who has known her ever since she was assistant for a popular series of TV interview programs back in the 1980s, her only consistent policy seems to me to be a virulently nationalistic dislike of all communist nations. Elsewhere she seems to rely on the fashions of the day — currently all the way from a freeze on consumption tax increases and an end to nuclear power to curing hay fever and removing unsightly power poles.
Not that Abe’s policies are much better. He has suddenly discovered that Japan has a serious population problem. Yes, indeed. But why did he do so little encourage kindergarten/preschool education in the past? As for immigration — the only immediate answer to declining population, in rural areas especially — the conservative LDP is still sitting on its hands.
One convincing answer comes from veteran political commentator Minoru Morita, who told a recent Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan audience that from a direct conversation with the prime minister he is convinced that Abe is far more worried about scandals now embracing him — especially the suspicious approval for a new veterinary science department at a university run by Kake Gakuen in Shikoku — than most realize. Abe’s unusual election call was designed to head off planned Diet questioning that could have put him in serious trouble.
At the same time his long-term election strategy for demonizing North Korea as a threat to Japan is also coming to fruition. In 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued the euphoric Pyongyang Declaration following a surprise visit to Pyongyang to receive five Japanese citizens North Korea had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. The eight other admitted abductees, including Megumi Yokota, who was abducted at age 13 in 1977, had died, according to Pyongyang. Later they produced some charred bones to prove it.
In 2004, Koizumi went back to collect relatives of the five abductees and to reaffirm the 2002 declaration with its guarantees of aid to North Korea and promises both sides would work toward normalizing relations. Abe, then the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, saw his chance. Where were the many other abductees rumored to be held in North Korea, he asked? Back in Japan he announced that DNA tests on the charred bones said to belong to Yokota proved North Korea was lying, although some Western scientists have since said DNA tests on charred bones are impossible.
Since then the image of numerous abductees, Yokota especially, still languishing in a North Korean hell has been used endlessly to criticize Pyongyang and justify the refusal to carry out the promised normalization of relations with North Korea, even though normalized relations with Pyongyang would seem to the best way to search for missing abductees. Those who criticize Tokyo’s approach have been taken to court, or in my own case, asked to resign a board position in a leading trading company; the abductee issue is extremely sensitive with many Japanese. The Megumi Yokota story has now been passed on to U.S. President Donald Trump. Both he and Abe have promised to further pursue the story when Trump visits Japan next month.
There is a simple answer to all this fire and fury over abductees. In March 2014, Yokota’s parents, Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, were allowed to meet Kim Eun Gyong, the then 26-year-old daughter of Megumi, in Mongolia. Why at the time did they not ask about the fate of their daughter, I once had the chance to ask. “Because we sought only to support the position of the other abductees” was the enigmatic answer.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if it was not combined with Abe’s determined effort to have the United States and the rest of the world refuse dialogue and seek to punish North Korea for its continued nuclear and missile development. But if that nuclear development was ceased, says Pyongyang, would it not suffer the same fate as Libya, which gave up nuclear development only to be attacked and destroyed by the West? Once again it is hard to find a proper answer— other than it helps Abe remain prime minister.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat long resident in Japan. During his stay in Japan he has been involved in university administration and has served on numerous official policy committees. Visit his website at www.gregoryclark.net .