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Shinzo Abe’s Biggest Enemy: the LDP (Page 2 of 2)

Despite this, however, concern remains within the LDP that these limits to Japan’s exercise of collective self-defense could erode over time, to say nothing of how a decision on collective self-defense could negatively affect relations with China and South Korea. In light of this, roughly twenty members of the LDP – including party heavyweights such as former LDP Vice-President Oshima Tadamori and former Minister of Finance Nukaga Seishiro – have indicated they plan to revive the Asian-African Affairs Research Group, which had consistently pushed for friendly relations with Asian countries since its inception in 1965.

The Asian-African Affairs Research Group had ceased operations after its two leaders, Motegi Toshimitsu and Kishida Fumio, were given Cabinet posts within the Abe government. The fact that the group is restarting operations while both men remain Cabinet ministers has left the Japanese press speculating that the LDP’s doves are regrouping and attempting to secure political leverage ahead of a planned Cabinet reshuffle this summer. Although the group’s membership is much reduced from its peak strength of more than 100 legislators, it remains to be seen whether the Abe administration will be able to fully satisfy LDP members who remain skeptical about his government’s defense policies.

The Kono Declaration and Abe’s Volt-Face 

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On February 28, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide announced that the Japanese government would begin privately re-examining the process behind the creation of the 1993 Kono Declaration on comfort women.

The announcement was met with predictable anger, with South Korea President Park Geun-hye asserting that relations between Japan and South Korea would worsen if Japan revised the Kono Declaration, stating that “leaders who cannot recognize mistakes will be unable to open the door to a new future.” This new low in Japan-South Korea relations set the U.S. racing to try to repair relations, even as the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia subcommittee increasingly faulted Japan for compromising the relationship and as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated that “Japan cannot win this [comfort women] argument.

But this news was greeted with joy in some quarters – namely, among Japan’s nationalists, viewed as a political support base for Abe. In response to Suga’s announcement, the Japan Restoration Party held a rally calling on the government to revise the Kono Declaration, where Japan Restoration Party lawmakers called the comfort women “a complete and total lie.”  It’s important to note that even though cooperation with the Japan Restoration Party is politically toxic after Toru Hashimoto’s statements on comfort women last year, the Japan Restoration Party matters: it has the seats to potentially replace the New Komeito as the LDP’s coalition partner, giving Abe important leverage in discussions with the New Komeito.

So what does Abe’s decision to uphold the Kono Declaration mean, in this context? It means that not only has he completely ruled out cooperation with the Japan Restoration Party, consigning himself to messy coalition politics with the New Komeito, but that he has also alienated one of his most prominent political bases after having stoked their hopes with his visit to Yasukuni Shrine. It is a choice that imposes large domestic costs for Abe for as-yet uncertain gains: despite hopeful steps towards Japan-South Korea rapprochement, it remains to be seen whether Japan and South Korea will reach any agreement at high-level diplomatic talks on comfort women on April 16, even as Japan, South Korea, and the United States are set to hold trilateral defense talks on April 17-18 after an initial trilateral summit at the Nuclear Security Summit in March.

If Abe is really as nationalist as this WikiLeaks cable makes him out to be – a “true believer” in the comfort women denial cause – then he has zero interest in upholding the Kono Declaration. So why the about-face? U.S. pressure could have played a role, especially if Washington could promise that it could bring South Korea to the diplomatic table – but as evidenced by the restrained U.S. response to Yasukuni Shrine, the U.S. has difficulty strongly criticizing Japan at a time when the two countries are working closely on revising U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines. Given how we already see elements of the LDP showing unease about Abe’s leadership in managing the U.S. alliance, an attempt to head off internal pressure within the LDP over Abe’s handling of foreign policy may also have had something to do with it, combined with a carrot-and-stick approach from the United States.

Forestalling a Revolt: Cabinet Reshuffle

On top of all of these pressures, Abe has yet to reshuffle his cabinet, leaving more than forty LDP veterans waiting for their turn in the cabinet. Personal ambition – or at least, frustration over going unrewarded for “doing one’s time” – is beginning to build within the LDP, though nobody has shown House of Cards levels of dissatisfaction. When these ambitions are combined with growing frustration with the Abe government over political appointees, policymaking, and collective self-defense, the fault lines are emerging in the foundation of Abe’s government – his own party.

In an effort to keep the LDP united, Abe has announced that he will reshuffle his Cabinet in the summer, after the current Diet session ends in June. But each Cabinet minister replaced returns the former minister to the party’s benches – whose faction leaders may or may not appreciate having their influence reduced in Japan’s chief executive, and might even act against the government if they are sufficiently piqued. Such internal rebellions are nothing new in Japanese politics, having played a quiet but powerful role in the revolving door of prime ministers over the past decade in both the LDP and DPJ administrations.

If Abe does not carefully manage the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle and tend to the demands of LDP legislators on party and policy issues, he could quickly find the LDP is even more uncooperative or, in a worst-case scenario, outright hostile – especially if his economic policies fails to deliver economic growth or steady inflation in the wake of the April 1 tax increase. Recent weeks should have been a wake-up call for the prime minister – and an enlightening experience for Asia specialists who are wont to believe that Japan’s “rightward shift” dominates Japanese political discourse, especially in light of an emasculated and divided official opposition.

Abe’s honeymoon period is officially over in Japan – and in the absence of obvious political enemies, he may want to keep his friends very close indeed.

Shunsuke Hirose is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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