Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Decoupling of the Abe Faction

JAPAN POINT ⚫️ 日本ポイント

research on contemporary Japan
Vol. VII, No. 3, December 18, 2023

by Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow
retired chief editorial writer for the Hokkaido Shimbun

On Thursday, December 14, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida replaced four Cabinet Ministers affiliated with the faction founded by Shinzo Abe (Seiwa-kai) in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This faction is suspected of having distributed secret slush funds to its members. On the same day, two LDP board members also submitted their resignations to Kishida, reportedly in frustration with Kishida singling out the Abe faction in connection with the growing political funds scandal.

A deep rift is appearing within the ruling LDP. At his Thursday press conference, Kishida did not explain how he, as LDP president, would take responsibility for the expanding scandal. “I will deal with this issue, becoming a fireball, at the frontline of the LDP for restoring the people’s credibility,” Kishida just said. Even after removing the Abe faction Cabinet ministers, the Kishida administration is in jeopardy.

The Prime Minister also emphasized that he will promote party reform while watching closely the Tokyo Prosecutor’s investigation. The direction of the reforms will be based on who is ultimately arrested or indicted. Kishida suggested that there may be a discussion on amending the Political Funds Control Act or reconsidering the roles of factions in LDP politics. He concluded that he cannot afford to think about a snap election or a Cabinet reshuffle until after the budget bill for FY 2024 passes the Diet in March.

Kishida replaced Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno with the recently former Minister for Foreign Affairs Yoshimasa Hayashi, who serves as the titular head of the Kishida faction. Matsuno reportedly received over ¥10 million of secret money from the sales of fundraising party tickets. The Asahi Shimbun reported that Kishida first offered the post to former Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada, but he declined.

Ken Saito, a former Minister of Justice, succeeded Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. Kishida also replaced the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communication, Junji Suzuki, with former Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto as well the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Ichiro Miyashita, with former Minister of State for Regional Revitalization Tetsushi Sakamoto. Matsuno, Nishimura, Suzuki and Miyashita are reportedly all implicated in the slush funds scandal.

[Backgrounds of the new Cabinet Members will be the subject of the next Japan Point]

The Chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, Koichi Hagiuda, and the Chairman of the LDP Diet Affairs, Tsuyoshi Takagi, handed in their resignations on Thursday. Although Kishida had not said unequivocally that they would be replaced, these two leaders of the Abe faction nevertheless walked out. Some in the Abe faction interpreted their departures as a protest against Kishida’s focus only on the Abe faction’s wrongdoing. The Kishida and Nikai factions are also said to have distributed secret flush funds to their faction members.

One of the members of the Abe faction, State Minister of Defense Hiroyuki Miyazawa revealed on Wednesday that he had been instructed by the faction not to record money received in the political funds report and to not say anything about it. The Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo Public Prosecutor's Office will conduct further interviews with Abe faction members.

In the press conference at the closing of Diet session on Thursday, Kishida said that he regretted the doubts that had arisen about the LDP’s use of political funds. He promised reforms to restore the party’s credibility, but did not identify any specific measures. “I will make it clear based on the facts which will be confirmed later,” is all that Kishida said about the reforms. This could mean that if the criminal investigation is focused solely on the Abe faction, Kishida would have a basis for removing the Abe faction from the LDP.

This was a very unusual comment by the top LDP leader. LDP leaders have in past said that “When a scandal is revealed, the politician is responsible for explaining it for him/herself.” This time, no one in the Abe faction said anything about the scandal and has said only that the investigation is ongoing. Nevertheless, Kishida has ousted only members of the Abe faction, as if only the Abe faction violated the law. LDP members no doubtless will regard Kishida’s comments as hostile to the Abe faction.

Excluding the Abe faction does not mean that all the problems in the Kishida administration have been solved. Other factions including Kishida’s own are responsible for LDP secret money scandals as well. If someone in the LDP is eventually arrested, Kishida, as the party’s president, will not be able to escape responsibility.

It is likely that ethics in politics will be one of the hottest topics in the Diet session beginning January of next year. The Constitutional Democratic Party has established an investigation team to look into fundraising parties in preparation for debates over amendments to the Political Funds Control Act. The CDP has argued that the LDP should hand its administration over to the opposition.

What the other parties are most afraid of is an abrupt counterattack by Kishida: dissolution of the House of Representatives and a new general election. However, the Kishida administration now lacks the political power to do so. The latest Jiji poll showed that the approval rating for the Kishida Cabinet has dropped as low as 17.1 percent.“ Kishida can never have a snap election,” said the President of Komeito, Natuso Yamaguchi, in a radio interview, “because he has no cause to do it without any effort to restore public credibility on the politics.”

Other poll results on the Cabinet’s approval rating are: 16% (-5) of approval rate for the Kishida Cabinet and 17% (-7) for the LDP in Mainichi Shimbun; 22.3% (-6.0) and 26.0%(-8.1) in the Kyodo News; 23% (-2) and 23% (-4) in the Asahi Shimbun; 25%(+1) and 28% (±0) in the Yomiuri Shimbun; 26% (-4) and 30% (-4) in the Nikkei Shimbun. In the Yomiuri poll, the most popular pick for next the prime minister was Shigeru Ishiba (20%) followed by Shinjiro Koizumi (17%), and Taro Kono (12%).

Kishida may hope for a snap election before the LDP presidential election next fall.The last chance for him to dissolve the House would be sometime between the passage of the FY 2024 budget bill in March and the end of the ordinary session of the Diet in the middle of June, if the session is not extended. Although the best timing for him would be just after his state visit to United States , which is expected in April, there is no guarantee that his approval rating will improve by then or after.

A Scare for Japan Managers

by APP Washington

Prime Minister Kishida has done a bit of house cleaning, even though it was forced by the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office. The result is likely to lessen the influence of the conservative nationalists in Japan’s government. The ministers and party officials removed were among Japan’s most conservative, history denier politicians. These are also the men with whom Washington’s Japan managers had or were cultivating closer ties.

It was Prime Minister Abe and his supporters who had the government commit millions of on-and off-budget funds to public relations. The primary focus of these efforts has been to scrub clean Japan’s wartime history and re-fantasize Japanese culture, all to advance a military alliance. The Abe government coordinated with private Japanese foundations to expand support of Washington think tanks, congressional programs, and Japanese-American cultural organizations. They also encouraged the efforts by Japanese nationalist organizations such Happy Science, Worldmate (Handa), and the Unification Church to build relationships with American rightwing groups such as the American Conservative Union’s CPAC as a way to access Trump and MAGA politicians.

The demise of the conservative nationalist Abe faction and the sidelining of its supporters suggest that the era of easy funding for Washington institutions involved with Japan-focused research and cultural activities is coming to an end. The removal of the conservative nationalists from the Japanese administration may also signal a shift away from defense budget increases and increasing alignment with the U.S. on security policies. The “Alliance” may become less a subject of support and study. This all presupposes that the coming changes are as ideological as they are political.

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