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Smith: Japanís PMís Popularity Plummeting Ahead of Elections

Interviewee: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 25, 2007

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Sheila A. Smith, a leading expert on Japanese politics, says the mood in Japan these days is “disgruntlement” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who came into office last year with a high popularity rating. Smith, based in Tokyo, says there are signs the July 29 election for half of the upper house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, could result in significant losses for Abe’s ruling coalition. Although a poor showing would not dissolve the government, Smith says many are wondering how a sharp electoral defeat would affect Abe’s ability to govern.

Japan holds parliamentary elections for half of its upper house on Sunday. There’s considerable news in Japan, of course, besides the elections: a serious earthquake, a leakage in a nuclear facility. What is the mood in Japan these days?

In general there’s a great deal of disgruntlement. The focal point of that disgruntlement is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. We’re looking at an election on Sunday where the Japanese population will make that disgruntlement known. It’s not a question of what’s at stake in this election, it’s really what went wrong with Abe’s leadership over the last ten months or so. Abe is trying to make this election a referendum on his ideas of constitutional reform and even diplomacy, but it’s not happening.

He was chosen as prime minister with very high popularity ratings, right?

He came in with 70 percent of public support last September. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party held its race for the leadership when his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, stepped down. Abe became the leader and therefore the prime minister of Japan. Abe’s popularity came from all different age groups, across different urban and rural areas. He seemed to be the strongest prime minister Japan ever had. But yesterday, polls gave him just a 27 percent support rate.

That’s a remarkable drop in less than a year. What were the causes? Were these domestic issues?

They’re mostly domestic. In September 2005, the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] under Mr. Koizumi’s leadership achieved a massive electoral success after he had dissolved the lower house of parliament over a postal savings reform issue. He threw down the gauntlet basically and said “The Liberal Democratic Party and I are for reform and if you want reform we’re the party that will bring it to you.”

Now explain: what was this issue?

It was the liberalization of Japan’s massive postal savings system. It had about three trillion dollars worth of savings.

In other words, people put their money in a postal savings account rather than a bank account.

Exactly, and it was guaranteed certain interest rates. It was also the institution that served as collateral for most of the government expenditures for much of the LDP’s rule. It was a significant issue because in the rural communities, of course, your local post office is where you always keep your money and there weren’t a lot of commercial banks to compete for savings. So in the rural parts of Japan this was really seen as a challenge to the LDP’s promise to take care of Japan’s older population. Nonetheless, Koizumi said “We have to reform, we have to liberalize and to do that this issue is emblematic of the larger project of economic reform, liberalizing and restructuring the Japanese economy.” And he won.

It would be like our Social Security folks saying “Oh, I don’t know what happened—for the last ten years we don’t have any records of your savings.”

It was a fairly sophisticated piece of political theatre—the Japanese were enthralled by it and he came out with not only a majority for the LDP but the LDP along with his coalition party had a two-thirds majority in the lower house. This basically gave the conservatives a legislative mandate. In the parliamentary system, of course, a two-thirds majority means you’ll get everything through the parliament. What you’re seeing today though, until we actually see how the Japanese voters respond on Sunday, you’re seeing a little bit of a backlash, I think, against the LDP.

Are there specific issues?

On their handling of reform, and in some senses the reform agenda itself. People in the rural areas are not happy with the LDP. They feel they’ve been left behind by the party—first postal savings and now the pension. Pension problems have been around for several years now, so this is not a problem that Mr. Abe created. There have been inaccuracies and missing records in Japan’s pension fund.

Say you’re of pension age, do you run a risk that you wouldn’t be paid for what you did?

Exactly. The records of millions of Japanese are either missing certain periods of their employment or for some people its missing altogether. It would be like our Social Security folks saying “Oh, I don’t know what happened—for the last ten years we don’t have any records of your savings. “

That is quite a scandal.

Horrible. In the midst of pension reform in general—which is a debate that’s been going on for four or five years now—this whole problem of misplaced records and government mismanagement arose. Many people in the rural communities are people who are elderly, and their pensions matter. The government tells them: “Well, you don’t have receipts so we don’t know how much money you are owed.” This is making the people in rural areas feel quite disconcerted.

Now I’m coming back to the nuclear plant leakage during the earthquake. The people hold the government responsible for that too?

It’s a combination of factors. Japan has had some significant problems with its nuclear facilities before. The bubble of the public’s confidence in Japan’s nuclear power was burst five or six years ago. The earthquake has really revealed the extent to which the nuclear structure has not been maintained. Everyone saw on TV today that people were mopping up radioactive water that had spilled with brooms and bags.

Now of course in Japan the government is run by the lower house of parliament as it is in England.

This election here is for the upper house and we should talk a bit about the nuts and bolts and what seats are up. A significant loss for the LDP and its coalition partner would not unseat the government. You would need a dissolution of the lower house for that to happen. But if the sort of defeat we expect is served up, how big is it going to be and how will Abe respond personally?

Which party is in the coalition?

The coalition consists of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito party [NKP]. It’s a Buddhist party, a swing party that the LDP has been in coalition with for about five years or so. They’ve got twenty-three seats in the upper house and the LDP has 109. But for them to maintain the ruling coalition to maintain the majority, they need sixty-four seats. Nobody believes they’re going to get it. So the question becomes, how much less than sixty-four does the LDP coalition get? Some people say it will be very low, in the forties. There’s a lot of guesswork with the numbers, and that guesswork is really about whether Abe will take responsibility if there is a massive electoral defeat.

On foreign affairs, Abe came in as a very strong, almost hawkish prime minister as I recall. Is that too strong a word?

No, I would feel uncomfortable with a “nationalist” label, but he’s a little bit closer to a nationalist than a hawk. He’s an ideologically driven conservative. He has issues he cares about in his conservative vision to change some of what he sees as the constraints of the post-war period. He wants to reform the education system, to teach children values, and patriotic values in particular. He wants to revise the post-war constitution.

What about relations with China and South Korea?

Abe’s been very good on that score. You have to remember that there was quite a chill in Sino-Japanese relationship when he came into office because Koizumi and the Chinese leadership had stopped speaking to each other. Koizumi, as he had done in previous years, had gone to the Yasukuni shrine [a Shinto shrine which commemorates the spirits of soldiers who died for the emperor, including some World-War-II war criminals] last August. When Abe came in, he had a kind of a blank slate and both Beijing and Tokyo wanted a conversation to begin again on a new footing.

Japan’s diplomats at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing are somewhat constrained because of a domestic constituency that is focused on the abductees issue almost above anything else.

He was given a lot of credit for being forthright on the Sino-Japanese relationship, trying hard with Beijing to restore the relationship. Where he faltered diplomatically was this year in U.S.-Japanese relations over the issue of the “comfort women” [women allegedly coerced in occupied territories into prostitution for the Japanese military]. At the time this latest controversy arose, the [U.S.] House Foreign Relations Committee had taken up the issue. Abe made some public statements to the effect that the Japanese military didn’t coerce women into sexual slavery, directly. He inflamed the issue and threw it into a bigger problem.

Are these Korean and Chinese women?

The people called to testify in the hearings earlier this year were two South Koreans and an Australian woman. The Chinese have been very quiet about it. It has not typically been something that has happened with bilateral diplomacy between Japan and China. It’s seen to be more of a Korean than a Japanese issue. But where Abe faltered was that he was coming up on this summit with President Bush. Many people in Japan were puzzled by the House resolution. I’m not sure everyone really understood the full dynamics of that here in Tokyo but everyone did understand that it was almost impossible for Abe to put it back on a good footing once he made the remarks that he did.

Otherwise his main issue in foreign policy is North Korea. This is the “abductee issue” [thirteen Japanese nationals were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s and many have not been heard from since].

So while the United States has been gradually improving relations with North Korea, Japan is still stuck?

Yes, and the tension for Abe is that he was very clear and very critical of Koizumi even though he was in the same government with him, over the abductee issue. Japan’s diplomats at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing are somewhat constrained because of a domestic constituency that is focused on the abductees issue almost above anything else. When you talk about North Korea, the abductees issue is at the top paragraph. Nuclear issues and the missiles which used to be Japan’s focal point have fizzled out. There’s a general sense here publicly that the United States is moving ahead without Japan.

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