Shinzō Abe’s difficult year

Alleged scandals, and their cumulative effect, have eroded trust in the Japanese Prime Minister

April 24, 2018 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:54 pm IST

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters after he attends a cherry blossom viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen park in Tokyo, Japan, April 21, 2018.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters after he attends a cherry blossom viewing party at Shinjuku Gyoen park in Tokyo, Japan, April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, is in the eye of a scandal-generated storm. Usually apolitical Tokyoites are taking to the streets in the tens of thousands questioning his trustworthiness. He has faced hours of questioning in Parliament and his popularity ratings have plunged to the lowest since he took office in December 2012.

Shadow over next poll

With accusations of corruption and cover-ups being levelled against Mr. Abe, doubts are being raised about whether he can win another three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader in a September vote. There is speculation that he might resign as early as June, at the end of the current session of Parliament — all this despite the fact that he led the LDP to a decisive victory in snap polls last October .

Mr. Abe is facing two charges: of facilitating a licence for a friend for a veterinary school, the country’s first new such school in more than 50 years; and of involvement in a heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, a kindergarten operator with ties to Mr. Abe’s wife, for an alleged profit of $7.5 million to the school. The evidence against him smacks of nepotism and dishonesty.


The Moritomo incident emerged early last year but resurfaced after a revelation that official documents related to the sale had been doctored, with references to Mr. Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, scrubbed. Ms. Abe was originally listed as the honorary principal for the school planned on the land in question, although she stood down after the controversy broke.

In the veterinary school matter, although Mr. Abe has repeatedly denied using any influence to help his friend, an official document has emerged that suggests otherwise.

Media pursuit

In both cases, the often-tame Japanese media has been dogged in its pursuit. The AsahiShimbun newspaper first broke the story in February 2017. Although the controversy died down after the Moritomo Gakuen operators were arrested on fraud charges last July, the paper resuscitated the scandal in March this year, with a hard-hitting investigation about the Finance Ministry altering documents related to the land sale before submitting them to lawmakers.


The Ministry admitted to the charge a few days later. But the Mainichi newspaper has recently reported that prosecutors have decided not to pursue a case against any Finance Ministry personnel because “the main point of the document remains the same”, despite the admitted-to alterations.

The media have been similarly tenacious in following the veterinary school story, breaking the news that officials from Ehime, the prefecture where the school has opened, visited the Prime Minister’s Office in 2015 to discuss the school licence. Mr. Abe’s then-secretary, Tadao Yanase, reportedly described the project to the officials as “a matter related to the Prime Minister”. Although Mr. Yanase has repeatedly denied any recollection of the conversation, the Agricultural Ministry has now found a document that outlines this meeting.

Mr. Abe has denied all the allegations. Last year he had announced that he would resign if any proof of his involvement surfaced. Now that a cover-up by the Finance Ministry has emerged, he has parried the matter by claiming that the unaltered documents may have mentioned his name but did not constitute evidence of either his or his wife’s involvement with the land sale.

Abe’s strategy

Mr. Abe, who supports a muscular brand of nationalism, has tried to shift the focus to the geostrategic threats Japan faces. He has been pushing for greater military preparedness in the context of missile threats from North Korea and the growing clout of China, with which Japan has a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.

The strategy proved successful in last year’s elections. But the persistence of the scandals and their cumulative effect has eroded trust in Mr. Abe despite his attempts to portray himself as the only strongman capable of dealing with security threats.

For both the media and, if opinion polls are to be believed, the people, holding their leaders to the basic ethical standards of honesty appears to be at least as important as nationalist tough talk. It is possible, of course, that Mr. Abe may yet weather the current storm and retain LDP leadership in the event of North Korea deciding to test further missiles or a ratcheting up of tensions by China.

For one of Japan’s longest-serving leaders, to be brought down by what in many countries would be considered “minor” nepotism may seem admirable. Or perhaps what is noteworthy is that more countries do not demand the highest levels of probity from their elected leaders. The leaders that any society chooses are after all a reflection of that society. What this says about India is best left to introspection.

Pallavi Aiyar has reported from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum

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