Japanese prime minister fights for his political life

Shinzo Abe is struggling to deal with scandals, resignations and sliding popularity

Never the healthiest man, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has lately looked worn out. Pundits note his crumpled, doughy features and wonder if the stress of running the country is taking its toll. Instead of taking a well-earned summer break, however, Abe is grabbling with scandals, resignations and sliding popularity.

Since his dramatic rebound from the political wilderness in 2012, Abe has led one of Japan's most stable postwar governments. Last year, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rewrote its rules to allow him to seek a third term as party president. That puts him on course to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in 2019.

Abe has achieved this despite deep popular misgivings about his nationalist politics. Good timing has helped: Though the economy is not much bigger in real terms than when he took office, Japan is wealthy, safe and peaceful. Unemployment and crime are at record lows. And Abe's opposition is largely impotent.

Like many long-term governments, however, Japan’s has begun to reek of hubris and corruption. This week Abe was forced to return to parliament during summer holidays to answer claims that he helped a friend win government approval to build a new veterinary school. The approval is worth millions of dollars in free land and grants.


Abe told parliament he played no part in nudging bureaucrats to help Kake Educational Institution open the vet school. He admitted that he and Kotaro Kake, the institution's director, go "way back" but insisted they never discussed his friend's application to build the school over a string of golf games and expensive dinners. Those denials have convinced few people.


Most polls puts Abe's popularity at its lowest since he became prime minister. To make things worse, he has lost a close political ally. Defence minister Tomomi Inada resigned on Friday over claims of a cover-up involving Japanese troops sent last year to help a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

The controversy over the troop dispatch underlines the ambiguous status of Japan’s military. The 350 Self-Defence Force (SDF) personnel were authorised for the first time to use their weapons to rescue civilians. But such are the sensitivities over Japan’s pacifist constitution that Abe was forced to pledge he would quit if any of the personnel were put in harm’s way.

Many suspect SDF’s daily logs were hidden because they would have revealed that the situation in South Sudan was far more dangerous than parliament was led to believe. Such pettifogging infuriates hawks who want to allow the Japanese military to take a more active role abroad and, in Abe’s words, “proactively contribute” to global peace.

With the LDP and like-minded parties in control of both houses of parliament, the way was clear for the prime minister to amend the pacifist constitution and clarify the SDF’s status. Divisive though the plan is, it would solidify Abe’s legacy among conservatives who view the 1947 American-penned constitution as a shameful blot on the nation’s history.

Abe's re-election and his ambition now look less assured. On August 3rd, he will attempt to reboot his cabinet and his fortunes by sacking his most unpopular ministers. With Inada gone, also for the chop is justice minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, who was accused of trying to stifle Diet debates on a contentious anti-conspiracy bill, which passed last month.

The reshuffle will give the prime minister breathing space but little else. Government auditors are due to publish a report soon on Abe’s alleged involvement in another sweetheart deal to the operator of an ultra-nationalist kindergarten. Suspicion has fallen on the sale of a plot of land last year to the kindergarten operator at a fraction of the appraised price.

As ever, Abe’s biggest strength is the weak opposition. There are few obvious contenders to take his place, even in his own party. The head of the LDP’s largest faction, Taro Aso, at 75, is probably too old. Others lack experience and support from party grandees. The main opposition Democratic Party is in chaos, following the resignations this week of its leader and secretary-general.

That means the prime minister will probably survive, says Takao Toshikawa, a veteran political analyst, if his health holds out. Abe takes drugs to control an inflammatory bowel disease – the reason, some suspect, for his bloated appearance. Yet, for the first time since 2012, his hold on power looks wobbly.