The Short, Unhappy Life of Shinzo Abe

If he had waited just two more weeks to resign, Shinzo Abe could at least have rounded out a full year as Japan’s prime minister. Instead, he seems destined to join the large number of premiers who served a few months and were then forgotten.

Remember Tsutomu Hata? He served for about three months in 1994 before resigning. And who can forget Sosuke Uno another three-month wonder in 1989, resigning after his mistress denounced him. Going back in time how about Hitoshi Ashida, premier for seven months in 1948?

This seems to be undistinguished company for a man with such a distinguished political pedigree — he is the grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister. Nor did he fulfill the promise contained in being the youngest, at 52, prime minister since the end of the war.

The immediate cause of Abe’s downfall was the July 29 election for half of the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan trounced Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party to win control of the body.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, a tough and savvy ex-LDP pol, had made it clear that he would not give Abe any slack and would use this majority to block any LDP legislation submitted to it, not just the controversial extension of authorization to support NATO operations in Afghanistan.

(Though often described as the “less-powerful” branch, Japan’s upper house is, in fact, co-equal regarding ordinary legislation. A bill defeated in the House of Councilors stays defeated bar a complicated override procedure.)

Owawa’s purpose was clear enough. He wanted to force Abe to resign and call for elections to the House of Representatives, an election he had good reason to believe might favor his party given the government’s and Abe’s unpopularity. Abe abruptly resigned after Ozawa snubbed a meeting over the anti-terrorism law extension.

Although Ozawa got Abe’s resignation; it is unclear whether he will get the election, although that is a distinct possibility if an impasse develops between the two chambers. The LDP will choose Abe’s replacement as LDP president and premier on Sept. 19.

That said, Abe’s short tenure got off to a promising start. His early popularity ratings were in the 70 percent range as he basked in the reflected public approval of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who chose not to seek re-election.

Just two weeks after taking power, he visited China and South Korea to repair strained relations with Beijing and Seoul, which were perhaps the main negative legacy of Koizumi’s government.

And his administration was not without important accomplishments. He passed a Revised Basic Education Law aimed at encouraging patriotism in the schools. He elevated the defense agency to the level of a full-fledged cabinet ministry.

He passed the necessary enabling legislation to allow Japan to revise its constitution, although he was never able to follow through on his desire to amend the document to, among other things, water-down its pacifistic provisions.

On a trip to Europe he became the first Japanese premier to visit NATO headquarters and the first to visit Japanese troops in the field, when he stopped at the air self-defense forces base in Kuwait. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan in April was the fruit of his approaches to China.

But from the very beginning it seemed like his government was beset with gaffes, leaving the impression that he could not control his cabinet. First his health minister talked about women as “baby-making machines”. Then his defense minister said he felt the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Abe gave them a talking-to, but did not fire them. Almost immediately, his headstrong foreign minister Taro Aso, said similar things about the US, Japan’s main ally. Other scandals followed. In all, Abe lost five cabinet ministers for public gaffes or misappropriation of funds, including one who committed suicide.

The parade of scandals continued even after the disastrous July 29 election when on September 3, agriculture minister Takehiko Endo resigned after being accused of misusing farm subsidies, and Yukiko Sakamoto, vice foreign minister, resigned over another money scandal.

But his most curious action was to plunge headlong into the sensitive issue of forced prostitution during World War II. Of course, Abe’s conservative views on Japan’s wartime history are well-known. But he had managed to finesse the question of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the lead up to his election and thereafter. So why reopen old wounds about the “comfort women”?

After all, the premier’s remarks that he didn’t think that the women had been coerced by the Imperial Army to become soldiers’ sex slaves came just as Japanese representatives were sitting down with North Korean negotiators in Hanoi. (The meeting broke up quickly – no reason why, maybe the comfort women remarks?)

The issue on the table was the North’s abduction of Japan’s nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. But if Tokyo couldn’t come clean about the comfort women – an issue that particularly animates Koreans (North and South) - why should Pyongyang come clean about the abductees?

Then in another bizarre move just last week, Abe, who had been resisting calls for his resignation for weeks following the election, suddenly threatened to resign if the Diet did not extend the authorization to support anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, authorization that expires Nov. 1.

This involves the deployment of a Maritime Self-Defense Force (navy) oiler in the Indian Ocean to refuel NATO and other coalition ships patrolling off the coast of Pakistan and Iran. The vessel doesn’t contribute all that much and could easily be replaced by ships from other navies, but it has high symbolic value as supporting the American alliance.

The opposition Democratic Party opposes extension of the law and views the use of Japanese naval vessels to support operations in the Gulf as unconstitutional.

It is early to predict Abe’s replacement. The obvious front-runner would be former foreign minister Taro Aso, who was moved to the No. 2 rank in the LDP in last month’s cabinet reshuffle and who had stood against Abe in the premier election last year.

But Aso is possibly even more of a conservative and nationalist than Abe. And considering that the public gave his party a severe rebuke this summer for elevating conservative obsessions, such as reviving the constitution, over bread and butter issues, one might think he isn’t the right man to come up against the wily Ozawa in the next election.