By Brad Glosserman
The greatest threat to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ambitious agenda is political instability in Tokyo. The spectre of such instability is re-emerging after a remarkable period of quiet as cabinet ministers in Abe’s government are being tarred with political funding scandals. Individually, the offences are insignificant. But, cumulatively, they are a distraction from the important work at hand and a regrettable return to politics as usual in Japan — at least before Abe took office. They could even derail Abe’s position as prime minister if the opposition within his party feels sufficiently emboldened.
Abe’s paramount goal is the assertion and affirmation of Japan’s global status as a ‘first-tier nation’. He has repeatedly emphasised that the foundation of any such role is a strong and growing economy. Political stability in Tokyo is key if this ambition is to be realised. While there is a certain ‘magical quality’ to that logic — at times it sounds like stability alone is the tonic, since that will change the way the Japanese people assess their future — a revolving door of prime ministers and cabinet ministers makes policy consistency impossible. Even without personnel turnover, the steady drip of scandal is a distraction, depriving the government of time for policy debate, while eroding the legitimacy of the governing party and government itself.
Political scientist Keiichi Tsunekawa notes that between December 1954 and June 1989 the average tenure of a Japanese prime minister was 1048 days. It declined to 549 days from 1989–2013, during which 13 of 16 prime ministers served for less than two years. This average would be even shorter without former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi who spent five and a half years in office. There have been 20 cabinets since 1998. In other words, the government has changed more than once a year for nearly two decades. This revolving door in the Kantei, argues Tsunekawa, is the primary cause of Japan’s lost decades.
Abe’s first term as prime minister from 2006–07 is generally remembered for policy missteps and his decision to step down for health reasons. But his term was also marked by three scandals involving cabinet ministers, one of whom committed suicide. His return to government in 2012 provided a stark contrast: the first Abe cabinet was in office for nearly two years before there was a shift in personnel.
The December 2014 snap election was designed to lock in political stability by ensuring another four years of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule. But, unfortunately, it appears as though old patterns are reasserting themselves.
In the second Abe cabinet, two ministers (both women) were forced to step down after being involved in scandals regarding political donations. In February 2015, four more ministers were accused of accepting tainted money. While denying any wrongdoing, one of the four, the former agriculture minister Koya Nishikawa, has resigned to keep from ‘disrupting’ the government.
Even the prime minister himself has been touched. There are allegations that Abe’s LDP office accepted donations from companies less than a year after they received government subsidies, which is against the law. Fortunately for Abe, Katsuya Okada, head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, also reportedly received funds from a subsidiary of a company that received government funds.
None of the sums involved are large — the donations to the prime minister’s LDP office just top US$5000 in total — and the charges centre on violations of the law, rather than allegations of trading favours. Most observers concede the laws are arcane and hard to follow.
Still, the scandals can have an impact that outweighs the apparent misdeeds. The LDP has a deep bench and can fill ministerial posts relatively easily. Reportedly Yoshimasa Hayashi, who replaced Nishikawa, was in the prime minister’s office five minutes after the cabinet post became vacant. Hayashi is an experienced legislator with several previous stints in the cabinet. His last job was as Nishikawa’s predecessor as minister of agriculture.
But Nishikawa was selected specifically for the post of agriculture minister because of his close ties to the agriculture lobby and his ability to help win approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will require controversial changes to agricultural policy. Given Abe’s agenda, any cabinet replacement will thus be a suboptimal choice.
Then there is the ‘noise’ that surrounds these scandals. Scandals suck all the oxygen out of parliamentary sessions, using time that should be devoted to critical matters like the budget. If the government uses its majority to force votes, it appears to be exercising the ‘tyranny of numbers’. If it lets the opposition objections run their course, it not only loses time but it also looks like it cannot control the legislative process.
Either way, the shield of invincibility that has thus far surrounded the Abe government has been pierced. The question now is whether Abe can restore the lustre to his government and re-establish stability, which brings with it the ‘magical quality’ that by itself helps convince the Japanese people that the tide has turned and a brighter future is just around the corner. Failure on this count risks seeing the drip of scandals become a flood, taking not only the Abe government with it but also the hopes of many Japanese of a better, brighter tomorrow.
Brad Glosserman is executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS and co-author with Scott Snyder of The Japan–Korea Identity Clash (forthcoming 2015).