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.