Could Japan's Abe step down?

Despite ruling party defeat, Japan's premier may resist pressure to leave office.

Japanese voters expressed their discontent over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's leadership as Mr. Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a crushing defeat in Sunday's upper house elections. The major setback could pressure Abe to step down, pollsters say.

Despite facing a loss of his parliamentary majority, Abe told Japan's Public Television network, NHK, that he is determined to continue his efforts to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution and reform its educational system to reflect more patriotic views of Japanese history.

"The nation-building has just started," Abe told a television reporter. "I would like to deliver on my duty to proceed with reform."

Meanwhile, LDP Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa, told reporters on Sunday evening that he intends to resign. While many senior executives in the LDP say they want Abe to continue with his reform agenda, Japanese media reported on rumors that some party members would like Abe to resign.

Analysts attribute the electoral rout to Abe's weak leadership, the government's mishandling of millions of pension records, and a string of scandals and gaffes by his ministers. Two ministers resigned and one hanged himself in late May after opposition members of parliament accused him of bid-rigging and misusing public funds.

In the early stages of the campaign, the media focused on whether the ruling coalition would be able to keep its majority in the upper house. The focus is now on whether Abe will be able to keep his job as prime minister.

"The public is saying, 'It is Abe who appointed these ministers, isn't it?' " says Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. "If Abe keeps his job, he should refresh the government lineup to regain public trust."

Abe, the youngest postwar premier and the first to be born after World War II, succeeded popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September with a cabinet approval rating of 70 percent and overwhelming support from his party. After only 10 months in office, however, the Abe cabinet's approval rating plunged to 30 percent.

"The major defeat means that the coalition of the LDP and the New Komeito will have difficulty in winning back a majority in the upper house in the next 12 years," says Mr. Kawakami.

The LDP loss could prompt vigorous moves toward political realignment, analysts say.

"Mr. [Ichiro] Ozawa could attempt to split the ruling coalition," says Mr. Kawakami, referring to the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). "If that happens, that could inevitably lead to increasing government instability."

The LDP's big loss could also make Abe lose the trust of the US and Asian neighbors, some experts say.

Soon after taking office, Abe visited China and South Korea to mend relations, which had been battered by his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial war memorial that honors, among others, Japanese soldiers convicted of war crimes.

"Asian countries see the visit as nothing more than a gesture as Abe has advocated the pro-American diplomacy since then, and failed to reexamine Japan's support for the US-led Iraq War," says Akikazu Hashimoto, a visiting political science professor at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo. "Japan has made no progress in developing its relations with Asian countries under Mr. Koizumi and Abe," he says.

Abe's denial of the Japanese Imperial Army's involvement in wartime sexually slavery caused an international outcry and further sharpened neighboring countries' mistrust of the Japanese leader, critics say. The premier claimed in March that there was no evidence that the military had forced women in occupied Asia to serve as "comfort women" – a euphemism for the estimated 200,000 women who worked in military sponsored brothels during World War II.

"Asian countries don't trust Abe, who is in favor of rewriting the nation's history and denies the military's involvement in the sexual slavery," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

Abe's denial was also fiercely criticized in the US. "While Mr. Bush may still support Abe, this election defeat could let members of Congress take a harsher view of Abe," says Mr. Hashimoto, who is also a senior research associate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "They [members of Congress] would say, 'We want a decent Japanese leader.’ ”

If Abe steps down and the DPJ could take power, Japan could improve its relations with the US and Asian countries, says Mr. Morita.
"Japan should reflect on its conduct during World War II," says Morita, reiterating that "the lesson Japan learned from its defeat in World War II is to build long-term friendly relations with the US, China and neighboring countries." [Editor’s Note: The original version did not close the quote from Akikazu Hashimoto and attribute the following sentence to Minoru Morita.]

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