AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

The new Abe Cabinet: Round two

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2007

FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT AND MASTER POLITICAL MANIPULATOR Lyndon Baines Johnson once remarked about then-F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

That maxim came to mind when scanning the appointments of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to his second Cabinet. Mr. Abe’s previous Cabinet was battered by financial scandals and repercussions from its misstatements, and his government was rocked by revelations of the Social Insurance Agency’s improper handling of pension records. He was walloped by critics on the left at home and abroad for implementing policies to move beyond the “postwar regime” and assert Japan’s presence internationally, to proceed with Constitutional reform, and to rework the educational system. Finally, he was jabbed by many in his own party for failing to take responsibility for the defeat of the Liberal Democrats in the July upper house elections by stepping down.

Rather than change course to assuage his critics, the embattled Mr. Abe seems to have chosen a different tack. He has forged a united front by bringing all the LDP pissers inside the tent and take on the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

These are some of his appointees:

Foreign Minister: Nobutaka Machimura

This is Mr. Machimura’s second term as foreign minister, and just as important, he is the head of the largest LDP faction (i.e., party-within-a-party)–and the faction that Mr. Abe was once a member of. He shares the prime minister’s goal of a more assertive Japan. He will lead the fight in the Diet to continue Japan’s mission of assisting the American effort in Afghanistan by refueling ships. The legislation expires this year, and the DPJ strongly opposes an extension.

Finance Minister: Fukushiro Nukaga

Mr. Nukaga considered running against Mr. Abe last year for the party presidency (and therefore prime minister), but decided against it. He is a member of the Tsushima faction, once headed by former prime ministers Hashimoto and Takeshita.

Defense Minister: Masahiko Komura

The new defense minister formerly held the post of foreign minister. His hardline approach to North Korea is compatible with that of the prime minister’s. He also heads his own party faction.

Education Minister: Bunmei Ibuki

Mr. Ibuki was retained from the first Abe cabinet. And yes, he is also a faction leader.

And, the most interesting of all:

Health Minister: Yoichi Masuzoe

Mr. Masuzoe (first photo) is a member of the upper house and is unaffiliated with any faction. The University of Tokyo political science professor won a reputation for outspokenness and candid criticism as a guest on television programs. He parlayed this into a Diet seat by a route often chosen by celebrities—winning election to the upper house instead of the politically more important lower house.

masuzoe.jpg

The media focus is on Mr. Masuzoe’s sharp criticism of both Mr. Abe and his Cabinet over the past year. He called for Fumio Kyuma (ill-advised statements) and Norihiko Akagi (political funds scandal) to resign from the previous Cabinet, which they eventually did. He took the prime minister to task for extending the previous Diet session past the June deadline, and for failing to resign after the upper house election defeat. Mr. Masuzoe also said Prime Minister Abe was beginning to resemble the main character in the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.

He will now be the man responsible for overseeing and explaining to the public the party’s efforts to clean up the pension system mess. This is a critical job because this issue has now become the third rail of Japanese politics.

What the media is overlooking is his former position as the deputy director of the Drafting Committee on the new Constitution. In that role, he was the point man in explaining to the pubic the LDP’s draft Constitution, including their proposed revision of Article 9, the so-called peace clause.

Therefore, rather than soft-pedaling his agenda in the wake of the election defeat, Prime Minister Abe has instead looked for ways to continue its implementation.

  • He traveled to India to discuss with the Indians an alliance with Australia and the U.S., an idea he floated in his book two years ago. During the visit, he stopped off in Calcutta to meet Prasanta Pal, the son of Radhabinod Pal (second photo), the only member of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to vote for acquittal of the defendants. He was also the only member of the panel with a background in international law. (We might well count this as a surrogate Yasukuni visit.)
  • He brought in for a second term as foreign minister the man who controls the largest bloc of LDP Diet members to prepare for a fight to keep Japan involved in military operations abroad.
  • He chose as his new defense minister a man in synch with him on North Korean policy.
  • He retained his education minister, almost certainly with the intention of continuing his educational reforms.
  • And he brought one of his harshest critics in the party into the tent to deal with, and hopefully resolve, the explosive pension issue—a man who shares with the prime minister the goal of rewriting the Constitution.

In other words, it could get very wet and smelly indeed for the people standing outside the LDP tent.

The upcoming parliamentary maneuvering promises to be fascinating. Though the opposition controls the upper house, the LDP can still pass all of its legislation with a two-thirds vote in the lower house—and it has the numbers to do it. Thus, the flow of legislation could easily wind up looking like this: Passage by the lower house – Rejection by the upper house – Passage by a two-thirds majority in the lower house.

pal.jpg
The trick for the LDP will be to make it appear as if they are sensitive to the wishes of the opposition and are not steamrolling them–while they are in the process of steamrolling them. Meanwhile, it will be up to the DPJ to advance a positive agenda in the upper house without seeming to be the usual gang of obstructionists–while trying to obstruct everything they do.

How this match will turn out is still anyone’s guess, but from here it looks as if the LDP has gotten up off the canvas and is back in its fighting stance.

UPDATE:The lead story in this morning’s Japan Times concerns the new Cabinet. The headline reads, “Abe taps faction veterans for Cabinet”. So far, so good. Above the headline, however, is the caption, “No Surprises”.

This is ridiculous even for the integrity-challenged Japan Times. Considering Mr. Masuzoe’s criticism of the prime minister and his relative lack of experience, his inclusion is most definitely a surprise. Also qualifying as a surprise is the selection of Iwate Gov. Hiroya Masuda as the internal affairs minister. Mr. Masuda’s reputation is that of a reformer.

It is a curious phenomenon. For decades, the media insisted it was unbiased. Now that no one believes them anymore–indeed, with employees of the BBC and American television networks even admitting it–one might have thought they’d clean up their act. Instead, being outed seems to have liberated them. They’ve gotten even worse, and among them, the Japan Times has become downright amateurish.

UPDATE #2: Last year, Prime Minister Abe used the phrase “A beautiful country” as the slogan for his administration. It was also the title of his 2005 bestseller. He stopped using it before the upper house election to prevent the opposition from using it as a weapon in the campaign. When speaking to the media yesterday, however, Mr. Abe intentionally used the phrase three times.

As I argued a couple of days ago, and the new Cabinet line-up seems to suggest, Mr. Abe might think that his core philosophy and policies are not to blame for the problems of his administration.

This is an additional hint that he will continue to pursue his agenda while trying to clean up the pension mess, this time without any blundering from the Cabinet.

A snap poll from Kyodo shows a Cabinet support rate of 40%, with a 45% disapproval rating. Still not ideal from the LDP perspective, but much better than it was last month.

16 Responses to “The new Abe Cabinet: Round two”

  1. Durf said

    As I argued a couple of days ago, and the new Cabinet line-up seems to suggest, Mr. Abe might think that his core philosophy and policies are not to blame for the problems of his administration.

    Abe explicitly said as much in his メルマガ sent out in early August. Read it in Japanese and English.

    I don’t think his core philosophies are to blame for his administration’s woes; his willful ignorance of the people’s primary concerns was the issue prior to the election. His poll numbers from here on out will depend entirely on how successful he is at proving that he’s back in touch with the popular will.

    Masuzoe is sharp as a tack and will work hard to fix what he can at MHW, but I wonder whether that posting was a punishment for his equally sharp tongue . . .

  2. Ken said

    Smart comment on Masuzoe, Durf…he got stuck between a rock and a hard place with little wriggle room, and he’s already taking the unpopular stance that the consumption tax needs to be raised, which only…oops! It makes his boss look bad…

    Certainly, Abe’s core policies are not to blame, since he barely seems to have any. It is the flip side that was to blame: not having core policies that mattered, or meant anything.

    Can he be serious about the economy putting Nukaga at the Ministry of Finance? This guy has already twice stepped down from ministerial positions due to political funding scandals. How long until the next one?

  3. Aceface said

    ”Masuzoe is sharp as a tack and will work hard to fix what he can at MHW, but I wonder whether that posting was a punishment for his equally sharp tongue . . .”

    But Kan Naoto become the most popular politician at the time being exactly in the same situation in MoH.Could be a big chance for Masuzoe….

  4. Durf said

    I don’t think Masuzoe has ever lacked for popularity, and he sure hasn’t been a supporter of this administration. I’m quite surprised he took the post and I wonder who in the party leaned on him to do so.

    My strongest memory of Kan at MHW was that time he ate カイワレ大根 to prove it was safe during the O157 flap. Good times. 🙂

  5. Aceface said

    And as you may know by now one minister(agriculture) and one deputy(MoFA) had resigned from Abe’s cabinet today.

    and another bad news for Abe,Pyongyang’s mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency had announced that Washington had agreed to have NK off the list from the states sponsoring international terrorism.No comments from neither Kantei nor Washington yet.

  6. tomojiro said

    Bad news indeed, for Abe.

    But I am not sure whether he is still willing to play the “strong” man using north korean abduction problem.

    He has a lot of things to prove in inner politics.

    But that the US government is that much eager to compromise with North Korea is really a bit frightening.

    That means that crisis in Iran is reaching it heights.

  7. ampontan said

    Tomojiro:

    Interesting you should mention Iran. Try this:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2007/08/if-there-were-a.html

  8. Durf said

    The KCNA is one of my favorite comedy websites. Right up there with the Onion.

  9. tomojiro said

    Ampontan

    One month ago by accident, I happened to listen to a radio interview of Sato Masaru (佐藤優), the diplomat who was sucked by Tanaka Makiko and who was (still is) closely associated to Suzuki Muneo.

    I am still withholding final judgments about this person. But one thing is sure. Reading several books written by him, I am sure that he is an astonishing intellectual person. He has a wide coverage of knowledge, from Judeo-christian theology, Islamic studies to Marxsim and modern Russian studies (he is an expert in that).

    His interview is archived on podcast (it is in Japanese, of course).

    [audio src="http://tbs954.cocolog-nifty.com/st/files/sakasa20070809.mp3" /]

    In my opinion, what he says seems to me the most plausible explanation about the problem in the middle east,the connection between Iran and North Korea and intention of President Bush and the US government.

    Especially the part where he says that the US government is more concerned about the reaction of the Israelis rather than Iran.

    But not all what he says seems to me convincing.

    I am interested in your opinion.

  10. Aceface said

    Some interesting moves regarding Iran.

    President Ahmadinejad spoke yesterday,that Iran possess about 3000 uranium centrifuges.Approximately twice as much as the IAEA inside report.

    IAEA directer Mohamed Elbaradei warned Iran in German “DER SPIGEL”magazine that although he sees prospect in the negotiation with Iran,he warned “This could be the last chance for Iran”.

    Teheran had send delegation for the first time in six years to the UN disarmament conference held in Sapporo last week,condemning the U.S and India for Bush admin.had made nuclear agreemnt with New Delhi even though India is not a NPT member state while Iran is.Talk about a Parthian shot.

    Another idea,Pyogyang is just bluffing and trying to give psychological pressure to Tokyo,and that would be undeniably effective to Abe in the circumstances.

    There will be an inter-Korean summit next month and you don’t need any crystal ball to say”The Rho Administration will give further compromise to the North”.With Washington uplifting the sanction after offlisting DPRK from SSIT,Tokyo would be completely isolated.And with that LDP may face another election.One catastrophic senario.

    While I do consider abduction issue is more than just Abe’s pet project,I must admit that there will be a moment of truth at the negotiation table in Ulaanbaatar coming Thusday.

  11. ampontan said

    Tomojiro/Aceface:

    I had planned to do a shorter money/politics post tonight, then all this happened, so now it’s going to have to be a little longer. But with two deadlines tomorrow, it’s going to have to be tomorrow night.

    Thanks for the link Tomojiro, I’ll listen to it, I hope tomorrow.

  12. Durf said

    Masuzoe hits the ground running!

  13. Aceface said

    The U.S state department had clearly denied the KCNA report.

    “Masuzoe hits the ground running”!”
    Looks like it.It seems he is the only hope of the diet.
    New condition for the Japanese leadership,you have to be a bald!

  14. Aceface said

    it’s cabinet not diet.

  15. tomojiro said

    actually it was a “hit” to choose Masuzoe for Abe. He has his most critical (or bald) critic on his side. That gives an impression of transparency.

    After Koizumi, it is becoming harder to rule and communicate with “Haragei”.

    You have to be bald (although it has its problems, I admitt).

  16. ampontan said

    Being bald didn’t help Endo!

    I’ve got to hurry up and finish my money post before there’s too much information to process!

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