Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra
The cherry blossom viewing party scandal has undermined the popularity of the Shinzo Abe cabinet and reduced public trust in the Prime Minister and Japanese democracy more generally. The sakura party scandal represents an example of what Japanese scholar Koichi Nakano describes as the Abe government ‘appropriating the state’ (kokka wo shibutsuka) — using public resources for private political advantage.
Tax money was appropriated for Abe’s personal political gain given the large number of his constituents invited to the sakura party and the massively subsidised pre-event dinner. The scandal also mirrors the previous Moritomo and Kake scandals in that those connected to Abe received special treatment from the government.
Prime Minister Abe has survived repeated scandals because he and his office (Kantei) have successfully tamed both the bureaucracy and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Kantei has tamed the bureaucracy by politicising it. The employment prospects of senior officials are dependent on the good will of the Prime Minister’s Office. Bureaucrats, including officials directly serving the Kantei in the Cabinet Office and Cabinet Secretariat, have become complicit and even active players in the scandals that have periodically engulfed the Abe administration.
When it comes to the cherry blossom viewing party, the Cabinet Office was complicit in protecting Abe by destroying official documents requested by the opposition. The documents would have revealed exactly how many guests were invited, who they were and who invited them. There was a similar lack of transparency over the party’s total cost and who bore it, as well as an administrative failure to stop the practice of spending much more money than was originally budgeted.
The possibility that Abe’s political support organisation (koenkai) bore some of the cost of the pre-event buffet dinner for his supporters also raises the question of a possible violation of the Public Office Election Law or Political Funds Control Law. NHK reported that the Prime Minister’s ‘quota’ of invitees to the sakura party included the former chairman of Japan Life Company, who has been investigated by police over allegedly unlawful business practices. Another dubious guest included a local politician who is a former member of an organised crime group.
The LDP has been tamed because Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai is an Abe acolyte and skilled party player. He continues to push strongly for a longer LDP presidential term for Abe. Nikai supports Abe because he is an election winner and because the Abe administration continues the kind of pork-barrel spending that keeps LDP politicians like Nikai in power. The LDP had a quota of around 6000 or 40 per cent of invitees to the sakura party. Abe’s electoral record, despite successive scandals, also dampens the prospects of rivals for his job as LDP president to mount a successful challenge.
The most scandals have done is affect the short-term popularity of the Abe cabinet. The administration deals with controversy by deploying a range of diversionary tactics, including the suppression and destruction of relevant government information. Abe himself keeps his head down, ignoring requests for explanations, hiding ‘inconvenient truths’ and avoiding embarrassing questions in committee sessions of the Diet.
The administration put an end to the sakura party issue when the ruling parties flatly refused to hold a Budget Committee meeting in which each question would have had to be answered by Abe. His ‘explanation’ in the Diet plenary session merely involved reading from a prepared paper. One Komeito executive commented that ‘the opposition parties are weak. The Prime Minister managed to escape’, a comment echoing that of LDP executives.
When pushed for ministerial resignations, Abe sacrifices only those who can be dispensed with without destabilising the Kantei. Those on the ‘untouchable’ list are Abe himself, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso — Abe’s ‘sworn friend’ — and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. For political diversions, Abe comes up with diplomatic ventures and bold new policy proposals in areas of immediate concern to voters such as boosting the economy.
Another feature of Abe’s durability is that public support is fundamentally grounded in the deficiencies of the opposition. Public opinion polls routinely reveal that support for the Abe cabinet is largely based on the view that it is simply better than the alternative. Voters are not sufficiently enraged with the Abe administration, whether in terms of scandals or its overall policy performance. Abe has no real concerns about any forthcoming election, although the opposition parties can use scandals to disrupt Diet proceedings and spur greater unity of purpose. In short, Abe retains government by default.
Still, successive scandals mean that the Prime Minister is increasingly seen as leading an arrogant administration lacking integrity, transparency and accountability, and as paying insufficient regard to due parliamentary process. Excuses for scandals provided by Abe and the Kantei often strain credibility. The reasons given for the lack of transparency in the latest scandal are laughable. Only 2 per cent of respondents in a recent NHK poll said that they were ‘fully convinced’ by Abe’s explanation, whereas 41 per cent said they were ‘not convinced at all’.
The question is whether Abe’s longevity in office is becoming a liability. He has been unable to translate his political dominance into achieving his most important policy goals. The real challenges facing Abe are yet to be overcome: remaking the Japanese economy, enacting constitutional reform and regaining the Northern Territories from Russia. The limits of his performance increase the risk that his long administration will not leave any enduring historical legacy.
Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of New South Wales, Canberra.