Sentaku in The Japan Times
Four years after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power, his administration continues to enjoy an unusually high approval ratings of more than 50 percent, and the prime minister's grip on power remains unrivaled. And as if he still isn't satisfied, Abe has begun to take steps to solidify the political foundation of his administration, causing new friction among political circles.
On Dec. 22, Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima, who hails from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, complained about the high-handed manner with which the LDP rammed through the controversial bill to legalize casino resorts. Speaking to his close aides, Abe himself did not hide his displeasure with the way Oshima ran the proceedings during the extraordinary Diet session, notably his decision to delay the vote for ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact. Such an open spat between the prime minister and the Lower House speaker, who is customarily chosen from among senior lawmakers from the party in power, is unheard of.
Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party must be all smiles with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States.
When Trump was reported to be leaning toward strengthening U.S. ties with Taiwan -- defying warnings from Beijing following his telephone conversation last year with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, major Japanese media outlets reported that dark clouds hung over Sino-American relations, expecting that the Communist Party leaders in Beijing would be rattled by that prospect.
Such an anticipation, however, is off the mark. A source well informed of China's internal affairs says that Trump, who is not too keen on protecting human rights, will soft-pedal Washington's interference in China's human rights issues, which in turn would enable the Communist Party leadership to step up its ruthless suppression of pro-democracy forces and those advocating independence for Uyghurs. According to that scenario, Chinese President Xi Jinping will take advantage of Trump's policies of pursuing nothing but economic benefits, and deprive his nation of 1.3 billion citizens of the freedom of speech and thought.
The Liberal Democratic Party quickly wrapped up its discussions to extend the maximum tenure of its president. However, the ruling party does not seem to be paying much attention to more complicated and serious issues that concern its future.
In just about a month after the party's political reform panel led by Vice President Masahiko Komura began discussions on the matter, the LDP effectively decided in late October to allow its president to run for three consecutive three-year terms, instead of the current maximum of two terms—a decision scheduled to be officially endorsed in a party convention next year. That will pave the way for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the incumbent party chief, to run for yet another term as LDP president when his current term ends in September 2018. Initial calls for caution over the change by the potential post-Abe leaders who stand to see their chances of a near-term ascent to the party presidency dashed, such as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, quickly faded away.
Lord Palmerston, who served as prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, once remarked that "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." By quoting these words, a Japanese government insider said recently that Japan is no exception—particularly in an age when a character like Donald Trump gets nominated for president of the United States (and goes on to be elected), noting that Japan would have to map out a new path of its diplomacy should its alliance with the U.S. starts to become adrift.
As if to reflect this view on history in transition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bent on seeking a breakthrough on the decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over the group of islands off Hokkaido and move Russo-Japanese relations forward when he meets with President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 15 in Nagato in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi.
In early February, the anti-narcotic unit of the Tokyo police was in the limelight after arresting Kazuhiro Kiyohara, a former star professional baseball player, on suspicion of unlawfully possessing stimulant drugs. But the case is just a tip of the iceberg as illegal drugs keep permeating through Japanese society with no end in sight.
A former anti-drug police officer has pointed to a lack of ability on the part of the authorities charged with controlling narcotics such as the police and the health ministry, saying, "Why did it take so long to arrest a guy like Kiyohara who had been heavily dependent on drugs?"
Indeed, it was in March 2014 that the weekly Shukan Bunshun magazine reported that Kiyohara, who had long been rumored to be using stimulant drugs since the 1990s, was rushed to a hospital after suffering drug poisoning.
There are two big hurdles that the police must clear before they can arrest a suspect in a stimulant drug case. They must be able to prove "possession" of a drug by arresting a suspect on the spot and they must be able to prove "use" of the drug by confirming that the suspect inhaled or injected the drug.
Just as doubts grow over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies dubbed Abenomics, many say that regulatory reforms will be the only way to revive Japan's economy. However, a sense of disappointment is already spreading in many quarters over a new government panel launched in September under Abe's initiative to promote such reforms.
Abe has long vowed to destroy what he calls "bedrock regulations." Such a pledge may raise some hopes if it signals that Abe really means a departure from his heavy dependence on Bank of Japan's monetary easing to shore up share prices. But a quick look at the names of 14 members of the panel gives rise to skepticism that Abe is merely seeking to keep the stock market afloat by feigning an image of his administration willing to tackle regulatory reforms—and that he has no resolve at all to fight the rigid government regulations.
After returning to power in 2012 with his Liberal Democratic Party's victory in the 2012 election, Abe proceeded to create one advisory panel of experts to the government after another at the initiative of his Cabinet secretariat. One of them was the predecessor to the new regulatory reform panel launched last month.
In early September, the Philippines criticized China for moving to build a military base at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, identifying a large Chinese ship operating there as a dredger. Already in March, Adm. John Richardson, chief of U.S. Naval Operations, had expressed concerns over China's dredging work in the area, because if a man-made island complete with runways is built in the Scarborough Shoal, that would enable Chinese nuclear submarines at a naval base in the Hainan Island to move to the Pacific via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and China would be able to fly bombers from the runways for a possible strike on Taiwan.
That would mean the U.S. air and maritime superiority in the area, including the Bashi Channel—which it commanded when it sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait to check against China's military exercises at the time of the 1996 presidential election in Taiwan—would no longer be secure.
In early August, a large fleet of Chinese fishing boats, numbering up to about 400 at a time, entered into the waters around Japan's Senkaku Islands, guarded by patrol boats of the China Coast Guard. But the principal players in the operations were neither the fishermen nor the coast guard, but rather a paramilitary group known as the "maritime militia," which played the crucial role in commanding the fleet. A close look at the incidents seems to point to a bitter feud between President Xi Jinping, who advocates reform of the military organization, and leaders of the military who appear to follow but in fact defy the reforms.
On the muggy afternoon of Aug. 15 at a fishing port in Quanzhou in the Fujian Province, fishermen were busy unloading from their ships the catch they had made during a 10-day expedition to the waters near the Senkakus. A man in his 30s, however, took off in a black 4WD vehicle hurriedly after landing on the port and giving instructions to others. According to an insider, this man was both the captain of a fishing boat and a key figure of the local maritime militia, and he needed to rush to the militia headquarters to report on the expedition. This scene illustrates how the primary purpose of the expedition was to encroach on Japanese waters, not to catch fish.
In his video message that was televised nationwide Aug. 8, Emperor Akihito posed a much more far-reaching question than had been anticipated, which was tantamount to a political statement requiring deep thinking for full comprehension.
The soft-sounding title "message" may have given the impression of what the Emperor said as the story of a highly respected, aging head of a long-established company timidly revealing his desire to retire. More than 80 percent of people in opinion surveys are said to have expressed sympathy for the Emperor. They probably thought that it was only natural for him to say what he said and wanted the government to take prompt action to respond to his wishes. That's because they took the Emperor's problem as an issue that could confront every family in this rapidly aging society—as if they had found a pitfall in the social security system.
The prospect of a constitutional amendment has been making headlines after proponents of revising the supreme law gained a two-third majority in both chambers of the Diet following the July 10 Upper House election. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's top political priority for the remainder of the year is not amending the Constitution, but holding talks with Russia to conclude a peace treaty and resolving the territorial dispute over the Russian-occupied islands off Hokkaido.
Abe has long maintained that the only way to resolve the territorial row with Moscow would be for him to talk directly with President Vladimir Putin. He has thus instructed officials of the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry to secure as many opportunities as possible for one-on-one talks with Putin during his overseas tours this fall. It has already been decided that Abe and Putin will meet in the Russian port city of Vladivostok during the Eastern Economic Forum starting Sept. 2 and again on the sidelines of the Sept. 4-5 Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China. He looks forward to meeting with Putin again in late September during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.