By Takuya Nishimura, Senior Fellow, Former Editorial Writer for The Hokkaido Shimbun
The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun
You can find his blog, J Update here.
January 7, 2023. Special to Asia Policy Point
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enters the new year with new problems. The slush fund scandal continues to invite distrust with the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) factions. Adding to public skepticism is the Kishida administration’s handling of the great earthquake in Noto Peninsula, an airplane collision at Haneda International Airport. Kishida must master these issues if his administration is to survive.
At the very beginning of the year, Kishida spoke of ending Japan’s decades-long deflation. In the new year’s reflection published January 1, he planned to free 2024 from the country’s deflationary mindset and its cost-cutting tendencies. “We need to have the public and private sectors work together so that everyone in the public feels tangibly what it is like for wages to rise and disposable incomes to increase,” said Kishida, aiming to achieve wage increases that surpass rises in prices.
But even before the end of New Year’s Day, a great earthquake with a magnitude 7.6 hit Noto Peninsula. In a press conference immediately thereafter, Kishida announced the establishment of a headquarters for disaster management and his personal leadership for delivering necessary support for the victims. He canceled his ritual visit to the Ise Jingu and stayed in Tokyo to supervise relief efforts.
Although the Japan Meteorological Agency issued warnings for a tsunami in the coastal areas facing the Sea of Japan, the damage caused by the earthquake was not as great as that resulting from the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake in 2011. The area including the Noto Peninsula, however, is home to many nuclear power plants. While there have not been reports of power plant accidents on the peninsula, a public debate over the safety of nuclear power plants is emerging.
Kishida has held daily press conferences to update the country on the situation on the peninsula and the measures his government has taken. The task is daunting. Aftershocks from the earthquake have damaged roads and other transportation infrastructure, making it difficult to send food, water or fuel to the peninsula. A major fire in Wajima City caused many deaths. The flu and Covid are becoming more prevalent in the shelters.
Considering the lessons of previous great earthquakes, Kishida announced that he would spend the reserve in the FY 2023 budget for reconstruction and increase the reserve in the draft of FY 2024 budget. Kishida has sought the cooperation of the leaders of the five parties, but they will find it difficult to agree even in face of appearing in opposition to disaster aid. Thus far, Kishida seems to be managing the disaster well, but he cannot afford any mistakes.
The very next day after the earthquake, a Japan Airlines (JAL) passenger jet was landing on a runway at Haneda Airport when it collided with a Japan Coast Guard (JCG) plane. Both planes caught fire, and JCG plane exploded, causing five deaths. In a near miracle, the crew and passengers of the JAL plane evacuated before the plane was incinerated.
According to the record of traffic control, the JCG plane had not been given permission to enter the runway. But the record also indicated that the air traffic controller did not notice that the JCG plane was on the runway when the JAL plane was landing. As if to amplify this disaster, the JCG plane was on its way to Niigata to deliver relief to the Noto Peninsula earthquake victims. The Kishida administration needs to make a better effort to determine the cause of accident, and it must take measures to prevent any similar accidents.
The disasters took Kishida’s attention away from the slush fund scandal, which keeps developing. The Tokyo Public Prosecutors Office has interviewed lawmakers in the Abe faction, including Hakubun Shimomura, the former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The prosecutors have also raided the offices of the Abe faction and two lawmakers, one of whom, Yoshitaka Ikeda was arrested. The leader of the Nikai faction, Toshihiro Nikai, was also interviewed. As investigation continues, public trust in the government erodes.
In the press conference on January 4th, the fifth of 2024 and ordinarily the first conference in the new year, Kishida emphasized his determination to restore public confidence. “I am leading the effort of reforming LDP,” Kishida said. He announced the creation of a new office in the LDP to enhance the transparency of political funds and to set rules for faction activity.
However, Kishida did not identify any specific political reforms. The leading parties have suggested that the threshold for reporting political funds should be lowered from ¥200 thousand to ¥50 thousand. Asked about it, Kishida was non-committal and said that it would be an issue for the parties to discuss in the Diet.
Kishida has said that he is working on other matters that cannot be postponed, such as wage increases, growth in the national birthrate, and international security. But given his administration’s low approval rating, political ethics should be the very “issue that cannot be postponed.”
The ordinary session of the Diet convenes later this month. The FY 2024 budget bill will pass the Diet by the end of March. It is likely that the lawmakers will talk about a possible snap election of House of Representatives in April or later. If the idea that Kishida is too weak to survive a snap election grows, there will be a movement in the LDP to replace Kishida as prime minister. Kishida must restore confidence so that he will be reelected in LDP presidential election in the fall.