Commentary / Japan | C Commentary

Resignations offer insights into Cabinet politics

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

In another turn of events for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai has stepped down over reports of improper payments made to his wife’s campaign staff (she is also a Diet member). This comes less than a week after Isshu Sugawara resigned as minister of economy, trade and industry because of his own scandal related to financial improprieties.

Considering that the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is one of Japan’s most prominent government institutions, conventional logic might suggest that the loss of the METI minister to scandal would have been a blow to the Abe administration. How badly did it hurt Abe’s public opinion? In a Kyodo News poll taken later that week, the Cabinet approval rating was up 1.1 percent. Kawai’s sudden resignation may not make a major dent in public opinion either.

While that may seem counterintuitive, these resignations offer a window into Japanese Cabinet politics, providing observers insight into the nature of ministerial appointments, when resignations become major problems for administrations, and why they may only have a limited impact on the political landscape. Like others before them, Sugawara and Kawai fell victim to the period of vulnerability that accompanies high-profile government appointments in Japan.

The fact that the resignation did not impact Abe’s political approval rating was in part because of the speed with which Sugawara was ousted, and Kawai’s quick departure may yield similar results. Abe was able to show both of them the door quickly because of the nature of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Cabinet appointment practices.

To understand all of those points, it is helpful to look at exactly what led to Sugawara’s demise. At the heart of the scandal were violations of the Public Offices Election Law; in short, Sugawara’s office illegally gave money and gifts to supporters. The monetary gifts included money presented at funerals within his constituency (which is only permissible if the politician him or  herself is attending and offering traditional “condolence” money). Other gifts included expensive crabs and melons for various constituents.

All of this came to light not because they were recent revelations — in fact, the statute of limitations had expired on several of the allegations. Instead, they came to light because of the period of vulnerability that follows any Cabinet appointment. Whenever a politician accepts a new Cabinet posting, he or she becomes a prime target for Japan’s weekly political magazines and tabloids. These outlets tend to build up files on politicians over time until their subjects reach a position of prominence. When that happens, the magazines release or republish whatever information they have gathered, and those articles then become a source of political debate and public inquiry, if the allegations are strong enough.

The allegations do not have to be huge in scale to be damning — after all, breaking the law is breaking the law. In 2014, newly minted Justice Minister Midori Matsushima was felled by the revelation that she had handed out uchiwa (paper fans) as campaign paraphernalia to her constituents, a violation of the election law. At the same time, media reporting revealed that METI chief Yuko Obuchi had misused political campaign funds, leading to her resignation.

Just like those ministers before him, financial improprieties revealed shortly after taking his new office led to Sugawara’s downfall, but it still won’t have long-term effects on the Abe Cabinet. Last week’s Kyodo poll was just one marker indicating the broader system at play. That system depends on how the prime minister responds to the revelation.

When a member of the Cabinet becomes embroiled in scandal, the prime minister typically has three choices. The first is to fire the minister. That practice is highly unusual. In fact, it has not happened since 2002 when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi fired Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, the popular but embattled daughter of former LDP heavyweight Kakuei Tanaka. The high-profile event happened only after months of in-fighting between Koizumi, Tanaka and leading Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, with Tanaka refusing to step down and senior officials of the ministry close to open revolt in public discourse. Koizumi took the bold action of replacing Tanaka without her resignation — a move that has not been replicated for nearly 20 years.

The second option is to try to weather the storm. A good example of this was Abe’s handling of scandals surrounding former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Inada spent months under scrutiny for leveraging her title in election campaigns, for her and her husband’s connections to the Moritomo school scandal, and for her mishandling of a separate scandal involving daily logs from the Ground Self-Defense Force’s peacekeeping operations in South Sudan. Abe stuck by his protege as her continued presence in the Cabinet kept an open target for opposition parties and caused the broader public to question his judgment. Unable to weather the storm any longer after months of falling approval ratings, Abe finally chose to go with option three.

The prime minister’s third option is to ask an embattled Cabinet minister to resign. This option does not carry the discord or negative connotation of “firing”; rather, it is couched as a request for the minister to step aside for the good of the administration and party, to reset his or her standing, and then try to re-establish him or herself down the road. Many LDP politicians have done this, including Abe ally Akira Amari, who resigned due to financial improprieties and then returned to prominent positions within the party. If the act of contrition is done quickly enough, the public generally does not penalize the administration, and the politician can retain his or her standing in the LDP.

The factors governing decision-making on those three options depends on the prime minister’s power and Cabinet composition. A prime minister in command of the party has greater leeway in making decisions unilaterally. Conversely, a prime minister with less political capital and greater reliance on other faction leaders in the party requires greater consensus building among Cabinet members on how to handle scandals, which not only takes time but eliminates the prime minister’s influence in asking a minister to step down.

In this case, the latest reshuffle was a demonstration of Abe’s command over the LDP, and it showed in these recent resignations. The Cabinet was filled with members of Abe’s inner circle, his close allies and his fair weather friends. Sugawara is not a member of Abe’s circle; rather, his appointment reportedly came at the suggestion of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Suga is close to Abe, but he neither has formal factional ties to Sugawara nor the clout within the LDP to force the Cabinet to try to weather the storm. Thus, when it came to deciding what should be done, the decision for Abe was simple — cut him loose — and Sugawara was in no position to do anything but step aside quickly. As for Kawai, he has long been an Abe follower in LDP circles, so his resignation would have been directed quickly with little protest.

All of this politicking obscures an important fact: There are allegations that politicians broke the law, but if the Cabinet handles it in a certain manner, the fallout can be minimal. Why doesn’t it matter more in Japan? That rests on which of the three forms of accountability become the target of the public and opposition parties — individual accountability, Cabinet accountability or party accountability.

As with many political systems, individual accountability is rarely straightforward. In Japan, Diet members enjoy some measure of constitutional protection related to apprehension while the Diet is in session. While that may not seem relevant in smaller-scale cases related to the election law, it plays a role when managing the response to bigger incidents such as the Lockheed bribery scandal that took down Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. There is also the issue of politicians deflecting blame to one of his or her staffers, where they simply claim that staff acted without their knowledge. Also, as mentioned earlier, the allegations that come to light after Cabinet appointments may have exceeded the statute of limitations anyway.

As for Cabinet accountability, it depends on how the prime minister handles a scandal given the three options and available power. The opposition parties will try to hold the prime minister accountable for Cabinet postings, but if the minister in question is removed from the Cabinet, there is little more the opposition can do other than to decry the ruling party in hopes of eroding public opinion and gaining more seats in elections. However, when a ruling party has strong control over both houses of the Diet without an election looming, the opposition parties find it difficult to keep the public’s focus on these scandals unless others come to light.

In sum, these resignations are symptomatic of broader Cabinet politics. There was nothing unique about these circumstances, and what felled Sugawara and Kawai will eventually claim other ministers in future Cabinets. In the meantime, the Abe administration will look to regain stability inside the Cabinet, and there will be churn internal to the LDP. Still, if historical precedent offers any insight, the administration will carry on and these latest incidents will likely only register as footnotes to the yearslong prime ministership.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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