Abe, Third Party Stir Japanese Politics

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TOKYO – It is said there are no second acts in Japanese politics. But Shinzo Abe, who served as prime minister for about one year in 2006-2007, seems determined to defy that rule and win another term as premier. If he succeeds, it would be the first time a Japanese leader has made a comeback.

Abe announced he would contest the Sept. 26 primary election to lead the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). His prospects improved when the current leader Sadakazu Tanigaki announced that he would not run for another term. He has led the party during its three years in the political wilderness.

With Tanigaki out of the picture the remaining candidates are all from the party’s conservative wing. In addition to Abe, the prospective candidates are the hawkish former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba and Nebuteru Ishihara, the son of the extremely nationalistic, China-baiting Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara.

This suggests that the next general election, widely predicted for the late autumn but possibly delayed until the new year, may be fought more on nationalist issues rather than on the future of nuclear power post-Fukushima, the economy and the record of the government led by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Although polls suggest that the public is more concerned about nuclear power, it is not an issue that animates the prospective leaders of the LDP. Ishihara senior may have single-handedly shifted the debate when he sparked the current brouhaha with China by threatening to have the city buy the disputed Senkaku islands, known to the Chinese as the Daioyu.

That forced the government itself to buy three of the islands (they were previously in private hands, though the islands themselves are uninhabited), for fear that under Ishihara’s perview the islands would spark repeated provocations and more antagonism, such as building lighthouses, planting the flag or establishing docking facilities.

Even so, the national government’s move was denounced in Beijing, which is dispatching more “fisheries protection” vessels to the waters around the Senkakus. Ishihara himself has proclaimed that the Senkaku Islands should be the main issue in any general election.

Abe resigned partly for ill health in 2007, setting off the current cycle of recurring one-year prime ministers. But his cabinet was also growing unpopular for its devotion to conservative hobby horses such as revising or repealing parts of Japan’s American-written constitution instead of focusing on bread-and-butter issues that more directly impact people’s lives.

He was also criticized for publicly doubting that Japan had forced women in occupied countries to serve in army brothels during World War II. The last thing Tokyo needs now is a reprise of the “comfort women” issue, as relations with South Korea are at historic lows over another disputed island in the Sea of Japan, controlled by Korea but claimed by Japan.



Prime Minister Noda has his own contest later this month. He is opposed by three no-hopers and is expected to easily win another term as party president. There is, of course, some question whether it is a prize worth having since the Democratic Party of Japan is widely expected to suffer big losses. It holds on to a fleeting majority in parliament now because of constant defections.

Noda is planning to visit Moscow in December – one reason for thinking that the election may be postponed until January - amid speculation that he may make some headway in another vexing territorial issue: Russia’s ownership of four Kuril islands claimed by Japan. A success here might resurrect the DPJ’s election prospects.

Of course, the most significant political development in Japan is the emergence of a new party headed by the popular mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto recently went national, changing his party’s name from Osaka to the Japan Restoration Party. It has already attracted seven deputies in the Diet, giving it official status.

The new political group is expected to do well in the Kansai region (Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto), but it is far from clear how well it would do in the rest of the country. Yet it could hold the balance of power, assuming that the now opposition LDP and its ally increase their number of seats but fall short of a majority.

Hashimoto and Abe would seem to make a good fit, as both are conservatives as Japanese understand the term. The Osaka mayor proposes holding a national referendum on Article 9 of the constitution, with an eye to modifying or repealing the war-renouncing clause. He is also hawkish on defending Japanese territory, i.e. the islands in dispute with China and Korea.

Hashimoto has feuded with local Kansai Electric Power Co. and its efforts to bring some of its nuclear power plants back on line, giving him an anti-nuclear power reputation. However, he hasn’t spoken much about the issue on a national level, and his prospective partners in a future coalition government are not likely to push de-nuclearization of Japan as ardently as some other politicians. Rather, he is proposing some radical constitutional issues that may not find much support among the more traditional LDP. These include cutting the size of the House of Representatives (now 480 seats) in half, eliminating the upper house, making the prime minister elected nationally and merging the prefectures into larger provinces.

Hashimoto sees himself in grand terms as a latter-day version of the Men of Meiji who totally transformed Japan in the 19th century and turned it into a world power. That is evident in the name of his party, in Japanese Nihon ishin no Kai. The word “ishin” is the same as the word in Meiji Ishin, or the Meiji Restoration.

Some in Japan might feel Hashimoto is getting ahead of himself by presenting himself as a major reformer in the mode of historical figures. But the Meiji Restoration is looked on with nostalgia among Japanese who are increasingly frustrated about the utter lack of change in modern Japan under the two main parties, and he may tap into that feeling.

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