AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Why didn’t Abe resign?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 27, 2007

Though group consciousness is a much stronger force in Japan than in the West, it does not absolve anyone from personal responsibility, particularly the leader of the group. When the group suffers a defeat or a serious setback, the leader with direct responsibility is expected to atone for that failure. This has taken many different forms over the centuries, ranging from ritual suicide and finger amputation to resignation from executive positions.

The political world is no exception, and politicians are expected to take responsibility for particularly serious defeats. For example, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto resigned after the 1998 upper house election when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party managed to win only 44 seats.

When it became apparent early this summer that the party would again be thrashed in the latest upper house election at the end of July, speculation began to mount as to what number of LDP losses would force Prime Minister Shinzo Abe out of office. It was widely assumed that Mr. Abe would step down—or the party would force him out—if they won fewer than 45 seats. Yet, less than a week before the election, those close to the prime minister revealed that he had no intention of resigning regardless of the results.

Those results were even worse than the party had feared. They managed to win only 37 of the 121 seats at stake. Three party elders gathered early on the night of the election and agreed among themselves that Mr. Abe would have to go if the party failed to win 40 seats. These three men were former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (first photo), then-LDP upper house caucus chairman Mikio Aoki (second photo), and LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa (third photo).

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When the extent of the debacle became clear, Mr. Nakagawa visited the prime minister at his official residence and gave him the word. But Mr. Abe was having none of it. He replied that he was staying in office regardless of the election’s outcome. When informed of this, Mr. Mori is reported to have said, “There’s nothing to do about it.”

As it turned out, both Mr. Aoki and Mr. Nakagawa were the ones who accepted responsibility and resigned their posts within the party, though Mr. Aoki is staying on until a replacement can be found.

Prime Minster Abe is of course fully aware of the practice of Japanese political leaders to assume responsibility and step down. Why did he refuse? After all, Prime Minister Hashimoto resigned the day after that humiliating defeat.

Could it be that Mr. Abe thinks he isn’t responsible?

If that were part of the reason for his decision to stay on, it would not be without some justification.

The prime minister entered office with a Cabinet support rating at around 70%, thanks to the afterglow generated by the outgoing Koizumi administration. There were three specific, measurable reasons why his support numbers had cratered to hover near 30% at the time of the election: The decision to readmit the postal rebels to the LDP, the scandals involving Cabinet members, and the revelation of the problems involving pension records.

Readmitting the Postal Rebels

Former Prime Minister Koizumi expelled from the LDP those Diet members who voted against his postal privatization plan, dissolved the lower house after the upper house failed to pass the legislation, and triumphed in a new election.

Shinzo Abe became Chief Cabinet Secretary two months after that election. He was opposed to the expulsion and had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the postal rebels to vote for the legislation.

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Reports at the time stated that Messrs. Mori and Aoki summoned Mr. Abe to a meeting shortly after he succeeded Mr. Koizumi as prime minister. They prevailed upon him to readmit to the party those rebels who wished to return, and eleven did. The idea was to help the party’s chances in the upper house election. They turned out to have severely misread the mood of today’s Japanese electorate.

(Parenthetically, it is surprising that anyone would continue to take Mr. Mori’s advice. He was an extremely unpopular prime minister, and he is reported to have begged Mr. Koizumi—with tears in his eyes, according to one account—to not dissolve the Diet over the postal privatization plan. His political touch seems to resemble that of King Midas in reverse.)

The Japanese public’s response was swift—Mr. Abe’s poll numbers plummeted at the news of the readmission of the rebels, with his approval rating dropping by roughly 20 percentage points.

It is of interest that in the past week, Mr. Nakagawa has formally taken responsibility for formulating the original plan to readmit the rebels and announced that he is stepping down. The reports also noted, however, that the prime minister supported his plan.

Cabinet Scandals

Prime Minister Abe has had to deal with several scandals and chowderheaded public statements from his Cabinet:

December 2006: Genichiro Sata resigned as state minister for administrative reform for inappropriate handling of political funds.

May 2007: Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide while he was being investigated for a scandal involving political funds.

July 2007: Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma resigned due to the controversy regarding his remarks about the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He already was in trouble after saying that the American invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

August 2007: Matsuoka’s replacement as agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister, Norihiko Akagi, resigned over irregularities in the handling of office expenses. The scandal came to light just before the upper house election and cemented in the public mind the impression that the Abe Cabinet was crooked.

In addition, Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa made an off-the-cuff remark in January about women being “baby-making machines”. While he did not resign (he is now being replaced), his statement and the ensuing uproar also damaged the prestige of Mr. Abe’s Cabinet.

These problems both drove the Cabinet’s approval ratings down to roughly 40% by January this year, and their continued emergence prevented the prime minister from gaining any traction despite a string of legislative successes.

Was This Really Mr. Abe’s Cabinet?

Former Prime Minister Koizumi was known for choosing his own Cabinet members and ignoring the past LDP practice of balancing the interests of all the factions in the party. His administration was so successful, some thought this would become the pattern for his successors. But did Mr. Abe really choose the Cabinet that brought him so much grief? A definitive answer to this question might be impossible because there are two schools of thought that directly contradict each other.

The Friends Cabinet

The Japan Considered podcast (text here) sums up one view:

Nearly all of the reliable outlets accept Abe’s claim that he rejected the advice of the LDP faction leaders while making his initial key personnel decisions. So we would err by describing his first cabinet as “Factionist.” But many of those same observers have criticized him for appointing such a large number of “Abe Friends.” That is, individuals who supported his campaign for the LDP presidency. Predicting that this pattern of selection is sure to get him into trouble.

Meanwhile, the party itself issued a report on the election defeat this past week that lays the blame at the feet of the prime minister. One of their criticisms was that Mr. Abe filled his Cabinet with mostly like-minded people or his supporters; i.e., a “Friends” Cabinet.

Yet there is also a substantial body of opinion in opposition to this view.

Shortly after taking office, there was criticism of Mr. Abe for an inability to control this supposed Cabinet of friends. Reports appeared in vernacular newspapers that he did not have the respect of the Cabinet members, and that some of them did not bother to rise when he entered the room for Cabinet meetings. That does not seem as if it would be the behavior of a group of Abe friends and supporters.

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Additionally, both former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and the avuncular Masajuro Shiokawa, Mr. Koizumi’s first Finance Minister, have stated publicly that Mr Abe needed a Cabinet that “understood his intentions”. Indeed, Mr. Shiokawa said this in a television interview on the night of the recent upper house election. The clear implication from both men that was the prime minister didn’t have a Cabinet that “understood his intentions” the first time around.

Finally, Durf, a frequent commenter on this site who works for Japan Echo, kindly passed along the information that the magazine recently published an English translation of an article by Harukata Takenaka, associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, which originally appeared in the May 2007 edition of Chuo Koron. The article discusses the influence of the upper house in Japanese politics. (Mr. Takenaka argues that the upper house is actually stronger than even some Japanese think.)

The upper house has maintained its high profile under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had initially suggested he would select his own ministers rather than heed the choices tendered by upper house leaders. This turned out to be unrealistic, and he ultimately submitted to the wishes of (Mikio) Aoki and Toranosuke Katayama, the LDP secretary general for the upper house.

In other words, one body of opinion holds that Prime Minister Abe was let down by a Cabinet he didn’t select.

Which is the correct view? When different elements within the LDP make diametrically opposite statements, it is difficult to say unless one is an insider. To be sure, Yasuhisa Shiozaki (fourth photo), the Chief Cabinet Minister, would qualify as an Abe friend, but how many of the rest of them could be so categorized?

Mr. Abe will reshuffle his Cabinet and announce the results on Monday. The new lineup will be scrutinized by political observers to determine how much weight he gives to balancing the interests of party factions and how much he emphasizes people who support his own views.

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Early indications suggest that FOS (Friend of Shinzo) Shiozaki will be relieved of his post. One of the primary duties of the Chief Cabinet Minister is to act as a liaison between the Cabinet, the party, and the Diet, and he has been roundly criticized for his performance in that role. Defense Minister Yuriko Koike will step down after only two months on the job over a flap involving the selection of the department’s vice-minister. Also, Foreign Minister Taro Aso is expected to be named LDP secretary-general, a party post that is widely viewed as a stepping stone to become prime minister.

Pension Scandal

The revelation last December that the pension files of about 50 million Japanese were unidentified removed any chance that Prime Minister Abe could salvage the upper house election. His poll numbers had been nudging back upward, stalling occasionally when each new problem with the Cabinet emerged. The disclosure that the Social Insurance Agency had mishandled pension records over the past decade sent them crashing to the 30% level, however.

Yet it is obvious that the original problem was not Prime Minister Abe’s fault; it simply came to light when he was in office. In fact, the new record-keeping system that was the cause of the problems was approved by former Health Minister Naoto Kan, now one of the leaders of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and implemented by Junichiro Koizumi when he held the same portfolio. The voters were in fact punishing the LDP, not Mr. Abe. (Update: Durf has pointed out that the real problem was the failure of the bureaucrats to properly implement the system.)

It is not unrealistic, therefore, to conjecture that Mr. Abe might not feel any sense of personal responsibility for this snafu.

It is also worth noting the reason these problems came to light are directly related to the prime minister’s measures for governmental reform. Mr. Abe planned to pass much-needed legislation that would block the practice of amakudari, (literally, descending from heaven), in which government bureaucrats are hired after retirement to lucrative positions by the very public corporations or private-sector firms they once regulated.

His reforms also would privatize the Social Insurance Agency, a move that infuriated the organization’s bureaucrats. As a result, those responsible in government for managing the pension accounts failed to keep the LDP informed of the extent of the problems within the agency. In addition, the increasingly regressive opposition DPJ saw an opening and advocated a merger of the SIA with the National Tax Agency instead of privatization, thereby keeping the former’s employees on the government payroll. Unidentified leakers within the agency fed information to the DPJ that enabled the party to fry both the prime minister and his Cabinet during interpellation sessions in the Diet.

PM Not Blameless

This argument is by no means meant to absolve Mr. Abe of responsibility for the election defeat. The difficult circumstances in which he finds himself are not due solely to being the good soldier and following the advice of party elders, or being backstabbed by bureaucrats afraid of privatization.

The prime minister clearly lacks the decisiveness of his predecessor in dealing swiftly with unexpected problems. He could have made his life a lot easier, for example, had he quickly severed ties with some of the Cabinet ministers when they became a liability. While Mr. Abe was caught off guard to an extent with the pension problems, one suspects that had Mr. Koizumi been the man betrayed, he would have declared open warfare on the agency and pursued a scorched earth policy. I’d have placed my bets on the former prime minister in that showdown.

And, to be sure, there are some in his own party who think that Mr. Abe should have quit. These include former Defense Agency heads Gen Nakatani and Shigeru Ishiba, and former Education Minister Kenji Kosaka,

Perhaps the prime minister would be more successful if his own party were to adopt a policy of “Let Abe be Abe”, but that would depend on Mr. Abe showing more backbone in office than he has to this point.

The composition of the Cabinet that he announces on Monday will be the first indication of whether he can emerge from political purgatory and remain effective.

ADDENDUM

One of the incidents discussed here was the suicide of Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the former agriculture minister. When writing the article I recalled something I had read two years ago on the blog of Joi Ito:

I remember a conversation I once had with former chairman Shima of NHK. NHK is the public broadcasting organization of Japan…I used to interpret for the late chairman and helped him set up his web site when he was ousted from NHK. I remember him telling me that half of the officially reported suicides were actually political murders/assassinations and that the corruption went all the way to the top. If I had heard this from anyone other than the chairman of the largest broadcaster, life-long political reporter and behind-the scenes kingmaker, I would have thought it was a stupid conspiracy theory. Coming from Shima it carried some weight.

I’m not interested in presenting a Japanese version of the grassy knoll theory, but the information definitely gives one pause. Of course I am in no position to discuss the credibility of this statement; I leave that to your discretion. Ito’s conditions, however, include suicides that benefit the establishment and suicides with no notes. Mr. Matsuoka’s demise seems not to have been for the establishment’s benefit, and he reportedly left six notes.

3 Responses to “Why didn’t Abe resign?”

  1. Durf said

    The amakudari bill was a joke, mostly. Building a central clearing-house for post-bureaucracy job placement doesn’t do a thing to stop the HR staffs of the ministries from sending their “OBs” on to ministry-connected gigs, since the whole new operation was to be run by members of those very same staffs, seconded to the organization. I’ve never heard a single explanation of this proposed entity that made it sound like it was meant to curb the practice at all.

    I’ve heard from some well-placed people that the Matsuoka suicide was indeed odd in many respects. I don’t think this means it’s time to point fingers at a white-washing administration, though, since as you point out it certainly didn’t do the cabinet’s poll numbers any good, and Abe’s team was stupid enough to replace the guy with yet another crook. (Maybe there just aren’t any other kinds of LDP pols these days?)

  2. Durf said

    Also, re “the new record-keeping system that was the cause of the problems”: the system didn’t cause the problems, the bureaucrats caused the problems when they decided it would be too much work to track down all the details required to plug old data into the new system. This was pure human failure. (I just wrapped up a translation of a piece on this scandal if you’re interested in seeing that as well.)

  3. AC said

    “Reports appeared in vernacular newspapers that he did not have the respect of the Cabinet members, and that some of them did not bother to rise when he entered the room for Cabinet meetings. That does not seem as if it would be the behavior of a group of Abe friends and supporters.”

    This was shown on TV, as well. However, I don’t think it follows that friends and cronies will necessarily demonstrate respect when one of their own is suddenly elevated to a position of authority that he did very little to deserve. People in the party feared Koizumi; that can’t be said about the hapless Abe.

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