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School of hard knocks reignites Abe’s political woes

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Protesters shout slogans and hold placards during a rally denouncing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso over a suspected cover-up of a cronyism scandal in front of Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 14 March 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

Japanese politics has once again been rocked by the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which threatens to take down the Abe government. The scandal appeared to have been shaken off last year, but this time round Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso have been forced to come out swinging for their political lives.


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The political damage has caused the Abe administration’s poll ratings to plunge. It revived the electorate’s perception of Abe as arrogant and unprepared to take responsibility for his government’s actions. It connects Abe to the Japanese extremist right. And it drives a wedge between Abe and Aso, threatening Abe’s political base.

The scandal emerged in February 2017 with revelations that the educational institution Moritomo Gakuen bought a parcel of land in Osaka for the construction of a new elementary school at a discount of 85 per cent off its appraised value. The discount, ostensibly because contamination had to be removed, was allegedly due to the school’s links with the Prime Minister’s wife, Akie Abe. She was set to be the school’s honorary principal. Prime Minister Abe denied any links between him, his wife and the approval of the land deal and declared that if any evidence was found he would resign.

To clear up the scandal, the then head of the Finance Bureau within the Finance Ministry Nobuhisa Sagawa was called before the Diet. He testified that no previous talks with Moritomo Gakuen had taken place about the land’s price and that relevant documents in the Ministry related to the sale had been discarded.

Questions remained but the scandal eventually dissipated after North Korean missile tests produced a rally-round-the leader effect and a recovery in the Abe cabinet’s public approval rating. Abe subsequently called and won a snap election in October 2017 and his troubles seemed to be behind him.

Earlier this month, however, the Asahi Shimbun reported that 14 documents submitted to the Diet between February and April 2017 as part of an investigation into the Moritomo Gakuen scandal had been doctored. The doctoring included the deletion of references to Mr and Mrs Abe, Akie Abe’s alleged remarks, the names of several LDP lawmakers, portions of a timeline of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, and reference to the right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi with which Abe and Yasunori Kagoike, the head of Moritomo Gakuen, are affiliated.

These revelations brought on opposition parties’ allegations of a government cover up. They accuse Sagawa of giving false testimony and the government of promoting Sagawa as a reward. Events took a further twist when a Ministry of Finance official from the local division that handled the sale committed suicide. He left a note explaining that he feared he would be forced to take the blame and that he was ordered to alter the documents by his superiors. These developments led Sagawa to resign from his new position as National Tax Agency chief.

Aso is coming under pressure to resign as finance minister but shows no signs of conceding. He withdrew from going to the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in Argentina to stay home and fight for his job. His strategy is to blame a small group of bureaucrats while vowing to look into why the documents were doctored to ensure that such a mistake is not repeated.

The damage to Abe’s future has three dimensions.

It revives public perceptions of Abe as arrogant and refusing to accept responsibility for government actions. Such perceptions have dogged Abe during his time as prime minister as he fixated on unpopular and nationalistic initiatives. His focus on security issues, such as the passage of the 2015 security-related bills, has been highly divisive. And his responses to this and the previous Kake Gakuen scandal have heightened public suspicions about him.

The scandal brings to the fore the connection of Abe and other cabinet members to right-wing nationalist groups because of the ideological nature of student activities at Morimoto Gakuen’s Tsukamoto Kindergarten. The school is notorious for requiring students to recite the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education (abolished in 1945) which established how loyal imperial subjects should behave in accordance with the Emperor’s will. Students were also encouraged to idolise the Japan Self-Defense Forces, sent on excursions to wish SDF members good luck before deployments and taught to chant slogans in support of Prime Minister Abe’s security initiatives — a possible violation of the Basic Education Law. The media spotlight on this reminds the public of Abe and Moritomo Gakuen’s connection to Nippon Kaigi and how Abe’s agenda is out of touch with ordinary voters.

The scandal also threatens to sour relations between Abe and Aso. This comes at an inauspicious time for Abe who faces a party president election in September. Even if Aso ultimately survives as finance minister, he may resent that his name and political future have been put on the line for what is essentially an Abe scandal. If Aso decides to withdraw his support for Abe and puts the votes of his faction members up for grabs, the LDP leadership race would be thrown wide open. Another three years as prime minister and a final drive to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution looked until recently a sure thing for Abe. Now his rivals are reconsidering their positions.

There is still no smoking gun. But even if Abe holds onto power for now, rebuilding his falling political capital will be a tough haul.

Ben Ascione is a research scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National
University. He is Japan and Korea editor at East Asia Forum and a research associate at the Japan
Center for International Exchange in Tokyo.

3 responses to “School of hard knocks reignites Abe’s political woes”

  1. ” but this time round Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso have been forced to come out swinging for their political lives.”

    Completely over the top rhetoric. Even if both Abe and Aso were to lose their current positions, that would not be an end of “their political lives.” Both would almost certainly retain their Diet seats in any subsequent elections and both would remain powerful figures within the LDP.

    Aso Taro was PM 2008-2009. Leading the LDP to a decisive electoral defeat did not end his political life. It is improbable that if he takes a hit over the Moritomo affair that will put and end to his political life. His age (now 77) is more likely to terminate his political life to say nothing of his biological life.

    Abe Shinzo was PM in 2006-2007 and bowed out ignominiously only to come roaring back in 2012.

    In parliamentary systems in general and in the Japanese system in particular losing a particular position up to and including that of PM in no way means that your political life is at an end.

  2. According to Roger Bowen’s book entitled Japan’s Dysfunctional Democracy Abe is but the latest of a very long line of LDP PM’s whose tenure in office were marked by allgations of corruption. Tanaka in the 1970’s resigned over the questionable practices associated with the purchase of defense related equipment from Lockheed. Per Bowen, however, most of these PM’s survived such allegations largely because in the post WW II years the public has largely accepted this as standard operating procedure. Can Abe and Aso get away relatively unscathed with a deep bow of apology and the firing of a few middle level executives in the MOF? Could get very interesting in the weeks to come.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of this article, that this scandal has caused significant damage to Abe’s reputation. Nonetheless, to borrow your metaphor, Abe himself is very much a graduate of the political school of hard knocks, and will not be easily toppled. His nous and determination have been doubted before, but short of footage emerging of the PM himself breaking into the Finance Ministry and altering the documents, I cannot see Abe stepping down before the leadership elections. Five months is a long time in politics, and in the unpredictable international climate, with GDP continuing to grow (albeit slowly), and with a window of opportunity to distract the public with a shiny new economic or structural policy, Abe will still fancy his chances of riding out this particular storm.

    Even the most damning polling numbers still place Abe’s approval rating at around 30% – weak, to be sure, but hardly terminal so far from the next meaningful election. Abe is hardly likely to calculate that he is better served stepping down now and forfeiting the chance to achieve his most treasured political goal (constitutional revision), which he has spent more than a decade laying the foundations for, as opposed to doing whatever he can to try and stabilise the situation between now and September.

    Let us not forget also that it has been less than six months since he renewed his considerable mandate in the general election. If Aso becomes a casualty of this present scandal, that will certainly be a blow to Abe’s chances of renewing his LDP leadership, but again it would appear far from predestined that a rift would spell the end of Abe’s career as a front line politician. The slate of potential rivals appears weak, particularly when opinion polls demonstrate that the Japanese public still see Abe as the most viable LDP leader when selecting from the regularly-mentioned candidates.

    Like him or loathe him, Abe is nothing if not a canny and determined political operator, and he is not likely to go gently into that good night.

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