The Abes caught in political quagmire

Updated : 01.04.2017 / Category Politics

There is a passage in Great Learning, a Chinese classic describing the core values of Confucianism, that says the ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world first governed well their own states. Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans. Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.

If this teaching is applied to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he appears to have failed to "harmonize" his own clan. Abe's wife, Akie, has found herself at the center of a swirling scandal over a controversial land sale by the state to Moritomo Gakuen, a private educational institution in Osaka.

Akie's link has been scrutinized ever since she was found in February to be listed as honorary principal of the primary school Moritomo planned to build on land it purchased from the state. Moritomo paid just one-seventh of the plot's assessed value after \800 million was sliced off the price for removing waste found at the site.

TV video footage shows Tsukamoto Kindergarten, a facility operated by Moritomo, teaching children prewar and ultraconservative ideas. One clip showed children had to recite the Imperial Rescript on Education issued in 1890. Initially, Abe praised the kindergarten and its president, Yasunori Kagoike, but after the scandal deepened, the prime minister criticized Kagoike for being too persistent.

Many observers say the Abes share the ultraconservative values espoused by Kagoike.

Abe's arrogance, intolerance widened scandal

The scandal stems from Kagoike's ambition to open a primary school in addition to a kindergarten and day care center despite his reputation as an ultraconservative educator and Moritomo's poor financial standing. According to political pundits, Kagoike wanted to take advantage of the tremendous influence the name "Abe" generates as he sought prefectural government approval to open the primary school and purchase the plot of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. Akie, who one high-ranking government official described as a person who takes people at their word, was obviously drawn into Kagoike's ambitious plan.

The dubious land sale emerged at a time when Abe holds a tight grip on the reins of the government and has no genuine political rivals. Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and employees at government ministries and agencies are increasingly trying to surmise what Abe wants them to do and acting accordingly.

Because of his uncontested power, Abe apparently has grown arrogant. He made an intractable pledge when he said, "If I, my wife or my office is found to have been involved (in the land deal), I will quit as prime minister and as a Diet member." In effect, Abe could be forced to resign, depending on how the Moritomo scandal pans out. Since Abe widened the scope of scandal involvement to his wife and office as potential causes for his resignation, dealing with the situation became much more difficult for him.

The question of whether the prime minister's wife is a public figure or a private person has complicated the issue. The government's written answer to a question at the Diet by an opposition party member stated Akie is a private citizen because she is not appointed by the government as a public servant. This was apparently aimed at distancing Akie from the raging scandal. But the government also revealed that five officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are currently assigned to support Akie, which highlighted the public nature of her roles. The government explained the five bureaucrats serve as liaison and coordination officers when Akie plays roles to support her husband's public duties.

This explanation allowed others to interpret Akie's visit to Tsukamoto Kindergaten in September 2015 to give a lecture as part of her role to support Abe's public duties. Akie was accompanied on this visit by Saeko Tani, a bureaucrat who 18 months later found herself in the limelight for having contacted the Finance Ministry to make inquiries over the plot of land the ministry would sell later to Moritomo.

The situation could have quickly been settled if Abe had agreed to summon Kagoike to the Diet as an unsworn witness as initially demanded by the opposition parties. At that time, many LDP members were also calling for Kagoike to be summoned on the assumption that the opposition parties would not have any other ammunition left to wage parliamentary battles with the government after Kagoike appeared before the Diet to give testimony, according to a high-ranking LDP member. Some even directly urged LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai to accept the opposition's demand, but Nikai reportedly said, "It is not easy because the Prime Minister's Office has its own ideas." The Prime Minister's Office Nikai was referring to was Abe himself, according to an informed source. But Abe instantly changed his mind when Kagoike dropped a bombshell by telling a group of Diet members, who inspected the land in question on March 16, that he had accepted a \1 million donation from Abe via Akie.

Immediately after Kagoike's comment, Wataru Takeshita, the LDP Diet Affairs Committee chairman, announced the LDP decision to summon Kagoike as a sworn witness to the Diet on March 23. Takeshita blasted Kagoike's remarks as "an insult to the prime minister."

According to observers, Abe's comments and handling of the scandal show his intolerance of trivial matters and failure to view the situation from a broader perspective. Playing hardball has backfired in several ways for Abe. One example is Kagoike's Diet presentation of a fax message Tani sent him in 2015. The faxed document was written by Tani as an aide to the prime minister's wife and stated she had contacted the Finance Ministry and got a response from the chief of the ministry's National Property Examination and Appraisal Office. The document also stated she had reported this matter to Akie.

A byproduct of concentration of power

Akie posted her counterarguments to Kagoike's Diet testimony on her Facebook account on the night of March 23. But observers say the message may not have been written by Akie herself, as it was carefully written to avoid discrepancies with Abe's previous remarks and attempted to give the impression she was not involved politically in this matter.

"The foundation of the government will be jolted if the government gives the impression that the prime minister's wife is protected while placing all blame on Tani, who is not a fast-track career bureaucrat, and the impression that politicians and high-ranking government officials are skirting their responsibilities," said a veteran LDP lawmaker.

The largest blow Kagoike's Diet appearance inflicted on Abe and the Prime Minister's Office is the emergence of public sentiment that "Kagoike is bad, but the Prime Minister's Office is sneaky, too." The public has been captivated by the scandal, as indicated by the high ratings of Kagoike's testimony to both chambers of the Diet--more than 20 percent if all broadcasters' ratings are combined. According to public opinion polls separately conducted by The Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) and Kyoto News right after the testimonies, 74 percent and 63 percent of respondents, respectively, said they were not convinced by the government's explanations in connection with the scandal. The Cabinet's approval ratings also have been on the decline.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, reportedly told people close to him that it would soon become clear that Kagoike lied. But even if Kagoike is found to have lied, there is no guarantee that Abe's credibility and public trust in him will be restored. Opposition parties are unlikely to withdraw their demand to summon Akie to the Diet as a sworn witness. Akie therefore likely will remain at the center of the scandal for some time regardless of whether Abe likes it or not.

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This is a translation of an article from the April 2017 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.