The announcement by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan would not revise the 1993 Kono Declaration on comfort women is a relief to those worried that the Abe government would go into full-blown nationalist mode after Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine last December. Examining why Abe pledged to honor the Kono Declaration, however, requires examining growing criticism of Abe within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), hinting at a divide between his administration and the ruling LDP-New Komeito coalition. Abe may be on far thinner political ice than he suspects, and he may face serious problems managing his own party should he fail to manage tensions in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle seen as long overdue.
LDP Pushback on Gaffes
On February 19, the Japanese press reported that Eto Seiichi, a prominent advisor to Abe, had posted a YouTube video accusing the United States of kowtowing to China in expressing its “disappointment” in Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The press promptly jumped on the story, forcing Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide to demand that Eto withdraw his comments, while publicly denying that Eto’s statements reflected official Japanese opinion. But given the silence over recent controversial statements delivered by Abe’s appointees to the NHK’s Board of Directors over comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, the incident might have simply been forgotten.
The next day, however, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka, head of the LDP’s influential Machimura Faction, openly criticized Eto’s comments, remarking that they created “a hundred problems and not a single benefit.” He went further and commented that the crisis could hurt the government, inviting the question: “What kind of prime minister appoints these sorts of people?”
Machimura didn’t criticize Abe directly, but his frustration with the prime minister’s appointees – which had endangered not just relations with Japan’s neighbors, but with the United States itself – was clear to anyone who listened.
How LDP members will view Minister of Interior Affairs Shindo Yoshitaka’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on April 12 remains an open question, although the fact that Shindo’s grandfather commanded Japanese defenses at Iwo Jima during World War II illustrates the complexity of the Yasukuni Shrine for many Japanese legislators, as opposed to Eto’s criticisms of the United States, which drew rapid condemnation.
Open Discord on Collective Self-Defense
The Executive Council (somukai) is the highest decision-making organ in the Liberal Democratic Party, and was once feared as the greatest test a piece of legislation would face. Recently, however, the Abe government has been accused of taking a “government high, party low” approach to the legislative process, sidelining the LDP. Frustration is not limited to the LDP: Its coalition partner, the New Komeito, has seen its influence severely tested over controversial proposals on collective self-defense.
When Abe declared that he “was ultimately responsible” on matters of reinterpreting the Constitution, a key step in allowing Japan to engage in collective self-defense, LDP lawmakers saw this as another example of Abe taking the LDP less seriously than he should. An LDP Executive Council meeting on February 21 saw veteran lawmakers openly question Abe’s intent to take a Cabinet decision on the constitutional issue of collective self-defense without thoroughly consulting the party first. This, combined with longstanding concerns over the merits of allowing Japan to engage in collective self-defense, led Executive Council Chairwoman Seiko Noda to announce that a “consultative meeting” of the Executive Council would be held on March 17 on the issue.
This was an extraordinary step that underscores how divisive collective self-defense remains within the LDP; a “consultative meeting” of the LDP’s Executive Council has not been convened since the debate over postal privatization during the Koizumi administration – nine years ago. That debate ultimately led the party to fracture, with several LDP members, including Noda, leaving the party.
The New Komeito and other grey eminences of the LDP have called on the government to engage in thorough discussions with the ruling coalition on collective self-defense, among them former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in an op-ed published in the Sankei Shimbun, calling for the government to clearly explain to the ruling parties and the Japanese people why Japan needs to engage in collective self-defense and under what conditions Japan would do so. Other elder statesmen of the LDP have not given Abe the benefit of the doubt; retired LDP Secretary-General Koga Makoto, called the prime minister’s plans to reinterpret the Constitution “the thinking of a foolish child.”
The divisiveness of the collective self-defense issue can also be seen through the plethora of “study sessions” within the LDP. The Kishida Faction of the LDP, known for its dovish bent within the LDP and represented by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Mitsunori Onodera, has announced it will hold a study session on collective self-defense. Meanwhile, each of the LDP’s three senior leaders – the Secretary-General, the Executive Council Chairperson, and the Policy Affairs Research Council Chairperson – have announced that they will also hold study sessions on the subject, an unusual display of disunity among LDP leaders.
The depth of disagreement was such that the consultative meeting of the LDP Executive Council on March 17 settled nothing. In the face of this criticism, Abe was left mulling postponing any decision on collective self-defense until after the current Diet session ends in June, while establishing a forum within the LDP to discuss collective self-defense and directing LDP leaders to unite LDP opinion before entering into negotiations with the New Komeito. This hardly suggests that Abe has free reign on issues of foreign policy.
In more recent days, the prime minister has managed to mollify many of his colleagues. LDP legislators are increasingly accepting new arguments made by Abe and senior officials limiting Japan’s ability to engage in collective self-defense to the immediate vicinity of Japan, providing only the minimum leeway necessary for Japan’s defense as demanded by Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Former LDP Secretary-General Koga, who had dismissed Abe’s proposals as “foolish” in March, has indicated that he would accept these constraints, as have members of the LDP’s Kishida Faction.