Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Image courtesy of Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg
The Bigger Picture (London) — Last week it was announced that the approval ratings for Abe’s cabinet fell by six points from November to 42.7%, the second straight month of decline, amid a scandal in which Abe has been accused of using taxpayer money to reward his supporters. However, Abe will likely weather this storm, as per normal.
Since 1952, it has been an annual tradition to hold an official government-sponsored cherry blossom viewing-party at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in which athletes, diplomats and other celebrities are invited as a way of recognising their achievements in their respective fields. However, the amount of people invited has been increasing for a while now, ballooning to 18,000 people last year, 4,500 more than five years ago. The event cost the taxpayer 57m yen ($500,000), two times 2014 costs. It has been alleged that a significant proportion of the audience were not celebrities or diplomats but instead supporters of Abe from his own Yamaguchi constituency, who were provided with travel packages to head up to Tokyo, attend the event and go on a river cruise. After opposition parties avowed to investigate the matter, which if proven would fall afoul of electoral law, Toru Miyamoto, a lawmaker for the Japanese Communist Party, requested more information about the viewing parties, including guest lists; however, it eventually transpired on November 20th that the documents (and the guest lists) were shredded on the same day they were requested, May 9th. As Miyamoto demanded of the committee, “Wasn’t the document destroyed so officials could say in the Diet that they did not know the details?”
Abe blusteringly claimed that it was mere coincidence, due to scheduling overlaps, “because of the work schedule of the disabled contractor in charge”, but the public are not impressed. Kyodo News polling from the 14th-15th of December showed 83.5% of respondents repudiated Abe’s claims, leading to the drop in approval ratings. Abe was also criticised for specifying that the contractor was “disabled” in his “explanation”.
This is only the latest of a long line of scandals to hit Abe, and somehow, like Donald Trump and other rightwingers across the globe, they push on through it, remaining in power, the opposition unable to capitalise. The cherry-blossom scandal attracted an unusual amount of furore, particularly on social media where 740,000 tweets were posted about the scandal, but just a month prior an arguably worse scandal engulfed two of Abe’s cabinet ministers. His former Justice Minister, Katsuyuki Kawai, resigned on the 31st of October after his wife violated electoral campaign laws whilst campaigning for an Upper House seat, and media reports uncovered that he doled out gifts such as potatoes, corn and mangoes to constituents, essentially amounting to bribery. Six days earlier, former Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara resigned after being accused of much the same, found to have been giving melons and crabs to voters; he was also separately revealed to have given money to the bereaved family of a constituent, an act prohibited by the Public Offices Election Act. Abe’s response was to mechanically apologise and say that he bore responsibility, but such scandals are the norm for him. Kawai was the tenth minister to resign since Abe began his second tenure as PM in 2012; most of them stepped down for similar reasons. With a weak opposition that is failing to capture the public imagination, Abe can ride through these scandals, staying in power no matter what new revelation is thrown at him. Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary general of the CDP, is right to say that the whole cabinet should have resigned after the two bribery scandals, but the harsh reality is that Abe’s stronghold on power is growing ever and ever tighter as the days pass.
The last time Abe’s approval ratings declined by ten points or more over two consecutive months was back in early 2018, when Abe was met with a scandal of so great a magnitude that it threatened to topple himself, his cabinet, and torpedo his pet project of revising the constitution (which he, as of the time of writing, has still failed to achieve). It was revealed that his government sold land to a nationalist and openly racist private school operator called Moritomo Gakuen in early 2017 at a massive 86% discount. Coincidentally, or perhaps incidentally, the operators were planning to construct an elementary school on that land which bore Abe’s name, and his wife, Akie Abe, was named honorary principal, a role that she fulfilled with vigour before resigning before the scandal imploded. This, it must be noted, is a school operator that ran a kindergarten which forced young children to dance to military songs, ordering them to self-sacrifice if “emergencies arise” and offer themselves to the state, like some kind of bizarre hangover from Japan’s imperialist past. It also sent notes to parents using racist language against Korean and Chinese people. Rightly, Abe’s approval ratings nosedived to 30%, but somehow or other Abe managed to grip onto power and claw his way through.
Part of the school that was going to be built on the discounted land in Toyonaka, sold to Moritomo Gakuen at a price of ¥134 million ($1.2 million) despite being valued at ¥956 million. Image courtesy of the Japan Times.
The list of scandals go on and on. It has been well-documented that Abe and his cabinet have a very shaky record when it comes to sexual harassment, blaming victims and having close relations with accused rapists (or, in the case of Noriyuki Yamaguchi, Abe’s close friend and biographer, proven ones). In July last year, Abe held a cheery drinking party with bureaucrats and lawmakers while floods swamped western Japan, killing hundreds of people. Abe’s former Olympics Minister, Yoshitaka Sakurada, responded to star swimmer Rikako Ikee’s diagnosis of leukemia by fretting over the loss of potential gold medals in the Olympics rather than expressing concern for her health and well-being. Taro Aso, who still remains Abe’s finance minister to this day, claimed his party could take a leaf out of none other than the Nazi party’s books. In Abe’s first term, his incompetent administration lost over 50 million pension records. The scandal was so grave that one of his cabinet members committed suicide, but Abe, as always, pushed on through. Every single one of his administrations have been deeply incompetent, rife with resignations, gaffes and legally dubious behaviour. But his party may even try to extend term limits so he can stay on as Prime Minister after his tenure is anticipated to end in 2021, so he can try and implement the anti-pacifist constitutional changes that he has been trying to implement for his entire political career. The mind boggles as to why it is generally accepted that Abe has brought stability to Japan, when in actual fact his series of inept cabinets muddle on through scandal after scandal.
So the cherry blossom viewing-party scandal is a mere blip on the horizon, par for the course. This political climate in which the opposition has largely failed to attract voters, in which many Japanese are disenfranchised and politically disengaged, is likely to continue unless the opposition radically shake up their politics. It did appear in the summer that Taro Yamamoto’s left-populist Reiwa Shinsengumi had a real chance at doing just that, and to some extent they have done, racketing up several million votes just months after its founding. But Yamamoto mainly focuses on inequality and eradicating nuclear power, and seems unwilling to acknowledge the magnitude of the climate crisis or encourage blue-collar immigration, of which both are essential in tackling the political issues that grip Japan today. To the dismay of environmentalists, which are growing in number across Japan, particularly amongst younger voters, Yamamoto agrees with the LDP status-quo policy of continuing to rely on coal. A contributor to the climate skeptic blog NoTricksZone who goes by the name “Kirye” claims Yamamoto told her that “in a sense it is wonderful if the fact spreads abroad [that climate change is not an existential threat] and that it is controversial.” The opposition will have to iron those issues out if they truly want to finally bring down Shinzo Abe and his incompetent Liberal Democratic Party.