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Managing Abe’s ministerial mishaps


Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW

The Abe administration has been beset by two high-profile ministerial resignations in recent weeks and a third called for by the opposition.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters before he leaves the Tokyo International Airport to Paris with the new government plane Boeing 777 for a eight-day visit to European and North American countries on 22 April 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Yoshio Tsunoda).

The most recent resignation was that of Olympic Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada. His many verbal indiscretions since his appointment last October seriously called into question his fitness for high office. In the space of a few short months, Sakurada managed to offend communities affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, one of Japan’s Olympic swimmers struck down with leukaemia and opposition MPs attending a Budget Committee meeting.

In 2016, he earned the ire of the entire South Korean nation by referring to so-called ‘comfort women’ as ‘professional prostitutes’. The opinion aligns with Abe’s consistent denials that the Japanese military coerced South Korean women into working in frontline brothels.

Sakurada’s previous appointment as Japan’s cyber security minister was even more incomprehensible in view of his admission that he did not use computers. He regarded his principal task as minister as reading prepared answers in the Diet without making a mistake. An important factor in his October 2018 appointment was Abe’s deep gratitude to Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.

Nikai has unswervingly backed Abe as prime minister including the revision of the rule that LDP presidents shall be restricted to two consecutive terms. Sakurada is a member of the Nikai faction and his appointment can be seen as a reward for its important contribution to Abe’s victory in the September 2018 LDP presidential election. Nikai is also on record as backing Abe for a fourth term as LDP president.

Sakurada’s resignation was the second inside a week and the eighth from the cabinet since the beginning of the second Abe administration in 2012. It followed that of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Deputy Minister, Ichiro Tsukada — a member of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso’s faction.

On 1 April 2019, Tsukada joked at a campaign rally for an LDP gubernatorial candidate that he had ‘surmised’ (sontaku) what Abe and Aso wanted in relation to the construction of a road linking their two home prefectures — the so-called ‘Abe–Aso road’. This involved the decision to upgrade the road’s construction to a national government project drawing national funding. Tsukada explained that he decided to upgrade the project because he felt that is what both Abe and Aso would have wanted.

These resignations show not only critical weaknesses in ministerial performance but also some of the defining features of Abe politics.

Factional considerations are trumping competence in many of Abe’s cabinet selections. Abe’s October 2018 cabinet reshuffle was undertaken primarily for the purpose of rewarding politicians and factions who had helped to re-elect him as LDP president for a third term. This resulted in Diet members being appointed to ministerial positions on the basis of factional recommendations.

Abe, like Abenomics, continues to sit astride the two camps in the LDP — reformist conservatives and conventional pork-barrel conservatives — a dilemma he has never managed to resolve. This means that old-style LDP pork barrelling remains alive and well in Japanese electoral politics. Regional roads like the Abe–Aso road are an old favourite.

‘Surmising’ is becoming more widespread and problematic in government decision-making. It was chosen as the buzzword for 2017 given its frequent use in relation to the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals in which bureaucrats are said to have surmised what the Kantei (prime minister’s office) wanted.

As in these scandals, the question of ‘surmising’ has largely been raised in relation to bureaucrats. Namely, whether public officials gauge what the Kantei wants or whether, in fact, they have been directly instructed to grant particular favours to Abe’s friends. For a number of reasons, bureaucrats now feel under pressure to deliver policy favours to Abe and to engage in policy engineering that supports the Abe administration politically.

This behaviour suggests that Japan’s national bureaucracy has turned into a huge organ that pre-emptively acts on unspoken orders (sontaku kikan) under the Kantei’s rule and cannot act against it. It also inevitably casts suspicion on the bureaucracy for behaving corruptly. It gives rise to a situation where public affairs are becoming intermingled with private interests, false testimonies are being given to the Diet and organisational attempts are made to conceal facts.

The latest policy failure scandal in the bureaucracy — centering on the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare — similarly involved a possible case of ‘surmising’ or even direct instruction from the Kantei. This gave rise to concerted pressure from the opposition for Labour Minister Takumi Nemoto to resign.

In all cases of ministerial incompetence and suspicion of involvement in political corruption, Abe has shown a marked reluctance to dismiss his ministers. Some argue that this is due to consideration for the Nikai and Aso factions that form his power base within the LDP — and thus the foundation of his administration. Another factor is Abe’s fear of falling ministerial dominoes, something that characterised his first administration in 2006–07, which ended in disaster.

Abe will be hoping that the Imperial transition at the end of the month and the extra national holidays for the 2019 Golden Week in April–May will quickly erase voters’ memories of his ministerial struggles. He will also be hoping that the LDP’s losses in Sunday’s by-elections for two lower house seats in Osaka and Okinawa do not presage a national trend for the upper house election in July.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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