- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

TOKYO — Sex and money scan- dals involving top government aides have increased public criticism of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ratings have slipped after a strong start to his admin- istration just three months ago.

Masaaki Honma, whom Mr. Abe appointed as chairman of the influential Government Tax Commission, resigned just before Christmas. Five days later, a separate scandal forced the ouster of Genichiro Sata, the minister for administrative reform.

Political analysts and opposition party leaders say the early stumbles have hurt Mr. Abe’s efforts to consolidate power after succeeding the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down as prime minister after five years in late September.

Mr. Abe sounded a defiant note in a press conference yesterday, vowing to push ahead with a major revision of the country’s pacifist constitution and expressing confidence that his ruling Liberal Democratic Party will pass a key electoral test in July’s parliamentary vote, the first national election for Mr. Abe as prime minister.

“I will have to face the election with determination to achieve victory as the president of the LDP and as the one responsible for the Cabinet,” he said.

Abrupt resignations

The Shukan Post, a Japanese weekly magazine, reported last month that Mr. Honma, an economics professor and former vice president of Osaka University, was living with his mistress and paying a low rent for a plush government apartment in an upscale section of Tokyo.

Under intense pressure from lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties, Mr. Honma resigned “for personal reasons” Dec. 21. Mr. Abe, who earlier insisted that Mr. Honma serve out his term, accepted the resignation.

“Abe should have fired Honma sooner. This will put his qualifications as prime minister into doubt among lawmakers,” Hirotada Asakawa, an independent political analyst in Tokyo, told Bloomberg News.

Mr. Honma, who favored corporate tax cuts to support the government’s pro-growth economic policies, had served as a member of the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, an influential panel chaired by the prime minister, in previous administrations.

Two days after Christmas, Mr. Sata was forced out of office over a money scandal, dealing a second blow to the young administration. A defunct political support group for Mr. Sata was accused of making a false report to the government about its funding.

Even before these two abrupt resignations, major opinion polls indicated the Abe Cabinet’s popularity was in decline. According to a December survey by the daily Mainichi Shimbun, the Cabinet’s approval rating plummeted to 46 percent from 67 percent in late September.

Mr. Abe, Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II, made a quick start in his new job, trying to improve the nation’s rocky relations with its neighbors by visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun just days after taking office.

Relations with these two important neighbors had soured under Mr. Koizumi, who made repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial dedicated to the nation’s war dead, including 14 major war criminals of World War II. His visits sparked criticism within Japan and protests in Beijing and Seoul.

Military reforms

Mr. Abe, a grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and son of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, has set as a major goal an overhaul of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, written after the country’s shattering defeat in World War II. He enjoyed early success when the parliament approved laws requiring “patriotic” education in the classroom and upgrading the country’s defense agency to a full-fledged ministry.

Mr. Abe’s military reorganization plan for oversight of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces even won the support of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the largest opposition party.

“This will certainly improve the morale of Self-Defense Forces personnel who guard the nation. Given this, the agency must shed its old skin to better fulfill its duties as a ministry,” the influential Tokyo daily Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial.

“Japan’s peace and security environment remains uncertain and unstable,” the editorial went on, “as demonstrated by China’s rise as a military power and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It is essential for the nation to consider how to deal with these uncertainties.”

Mr. Abe pushed the reforms despite strong criticism that they represented another shift away from Japan’s postwar pacifist ideals.

‘Terminal condition’

The prime minister also faced mounting criticism after a report that the government had routinely rigged town meetings to manipulate public opinion.

The meetings were held under Mr. Koizumi, but Mr. Abe, who was chief Cabinet secretary at the time, was among the organizers. The government reportedly paid certain participants to ask questions and make statements supportive of its policies, including the amendment to the education law.

Mr. Abe’s leadership also faced criticism when he allowed independent lawmakers of the House of Representatives to be reinstated in the LDP. They had been ousted from the party in 2005 for opposing Mr. Koizumi’s push for the privatization of the postal service.

The resignations of Mr. Honma and Mr. Sata have emboldened the political opposition, which has stepped up its criticisms of Mr. Abe.

DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa described the Abe Cabinet as “being in a terminal condition.” The administration’s slump in popularity, however, has not translated yet into rising support for the opposition parties.

Some criticize the press as failing to cover the opposition, while others argue that the DPJ itself has fallen short consistently in conveying its ideas and policies. The bigger political debate, many say, is between Mr. Abe’s LDP and the religious New Komeito, the ruling coalition’s minority partner.

“We have not had a full-fledged two-party system yet,” said Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor of political science at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Everyone is talking about the LDP and the DPJ, but they overlook the New Komeito, which exerts far more influence than the number of the seats the party has.”

The New Komeito, an offshoot of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, has 31 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives and 24 of the 242 seats in the House of Councilors. The LDP relies heavily on the vote-gathering power of its partner’s religious networks.

“Mr. Koizumi succeeded in winning the broad support of nonaffiliated voters, while Mr. Abe has not. Without the New Komeito, the LDP would be very shaky,” Mr. Hashimoto said. “You never know what can happen. They may dissolve the coalition partnership with the LDP.”

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