Prediction is hazardous at best, but it seems Shinzo Abe’s days as Japanese prime minister are numbered.When he launched his cabinet in September last year, Abe was hailed as the anointed heir to Junichiro Koizumi, the reformist premier who has shaken up Japan’s ossified government and set a new direction for the world’s second largest economy. With the debacle of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the July 29 election of the Upper House of the Diet, Abe appears to be as short-lived as Nobusuke Kishi who had to resign as prime minister in 1960 immediately after he had renewed the mutual security treaty between Japan and the United States.
Kishi, who had only a brief two-year tenure, was Abe’s grandfather.The renewal of the treaty, the pillar on which postwar Japan’s defense rests, was so fiercely opposed by the opposition Japan Socialist Party that Kishi had to ram its ratification through the Diet.The Socialists boycotted the parliament session, but Kishih relied solely on his Liberal Democrat support for the renewal of the pact whose exchange of instruments President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to witness in Tokyo.Eisenhower had to cancel his state visit to Japan, and Kishi stepped down to take responsibility.
Abe does not have to step down, though the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, emboldened by its landslide victory to wrest the control of the Upper House, is demanding his resignation and a new general election.His Liberal Democrats, together with their ally New Komeito, have a comfortable majority in the all-important Lower House where the prime minister is elected. He has made clear he is not going to quit and call that election, which, if held now, may end the long all but uninterrupted reign of the Liberal Democrat Party, which Kishi and his conservative prewar colleagues formed in 1955.
Though a mandatory general election is years away, the Liberal Democrats are feeling a sense of crisis now.The opposition party may not be a real threat, for it is still a loose coalition of Socialists and former Liberal Democrats and lacks cohesion.Its head, Ichiro Ozawa, used to be a Liberal Democratic Party faction leader.But the ruling party is seriously concerned about who is going to lead it to continue governing the country.
No power struggle is afoot in the Liberal Democratic Party, but faction leaders – though nominally there are no more party factions – are planning to challenge the Abe leadership.Taro Aso, a political scion, is casting an eye on the party chairmanship he lost to Abe last year.Aso is a grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, the prime minister who presided over Japan when it signed a peace treaty in San Francisco in 1951 to formally end the Second World War.Another leader is Yasuo Fukuda, whose father was Takeo Fukuda, another prime minister.There may be other would-be contenders, but none of them have the caliber of Koizumi, who may be called upon for a comeback.
Koizumi, who led the Liberal Democrats from April 2001 to September last year, is a unique character.In many senses, he is like Yoshida, the chief architect of Japan’s rise as an economic power. Koizumi captivated a nation hungry for the strong forward-looking leadership Japan had not seen after the Yoshida era.He became less popular by the time he was to leave office, one reason being his failure to mend fence with China and South Korea.Koizumi insisted on visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where Japan’s war dead, including war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo, are honored.Tojo was the prime minister who ordered a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and China, in particular, refused to improve relations with Japan unless Koizumi stopped his pilgrimage to Yasukuni, which Beijing leaders believe glorifies Japanese militarism.
That fence-mending was done by Abe, who paid a visit to Beijing almost as soon as he had been made prime minister.But it is the only point he has scored.He has failed to carry on the reform Koizumi initiated.Moreover, Abe’s 10-month rule is marred by official corruption and politically costly gaffes.He himself offended the United States by stating there is no evidence that Japan’s imperial army coerced non-Japanese women to serve as sex slaves.His defense minister was forced to resign by justifying the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.His minister of agriculture, charged with corruption, committed suicide.In fact, the Japanese electorate punished the Liberal Democrats for a long spate of corruption scandals.
Like Mrs. Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Koizumi brought in an irreversible force of change.He reversed the decline of the economy and reduced the role of the government in financial matters.He scaled back the pork barrel concrete-and-asphalt economics.Wasteful public works spending has compelled Japan to pile up one of the world’s heaviest public debts.
It won’t be easy for Koizumi to make a political comeback. Kishi couldn’t.Only one prime minister has made it in postwar Japan.Yoshida was able to come back after a brief Socialist rule.Sir Winston Churchill made it in London, too.Japan is now at a critical juncture.It has to cope with the rising power of China.Should the change created by Koizumi be allowed to lapse, Japan would lose the economic influence it wants to have in the age of globalization.The stage is being set for Koizumi to return to power like Yoshida and Sir Winston.