Interview with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai by Eiji Oshita
Q: As the new secretary general, I think the LDP’s relationship with new Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who defied the LDP Tokyo chapter and got elected, is one of your problems.
Nikai: Everybody fights tooth and nail in an election. Now is the time to lay down arms and think calmly about the success of the Tokyo Olympics and the interests of the Tokyo citizens. The LDP is a party that is able to do so in a situation like this. Besides, we have had a long relationship with Ms. Koike.
Q: You have spoken positively about extending Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s term of office, which ends in September 2018.
Nikai: Prime Minister Abe has a very good international reputation. He is energetic, young, and at the peak of his policy capability. Needless to say, he also enjoys a high support rating. There is overwhelming support among the people for him to serve a bit longer. Therefore, I said we should pave the way for that to happen. What happens from now on is for the people and the party members to decide. I think things will move in that direction gradually.
Q: Are you saying this will be decided within this year?
Nikai: Everything will have to be decided from now on. I believe we all need to think about a political issue like this constantly. What I said recently was just a reiteration of something I have stated several times before.
Q: The Nikai faction has supported President Abe consistently. Your faction was the first to announce support for him in the presidential election in September last year and all faction members signed the endorsement for his candidacy.
Nikai: It so happened that we were holding a seminar in Chichibu [Saitama Prefecture] at that time. We reached a consensus on supporting the Prime Minister’s reelection so we expressed our intent. When advocating something, it will not do for a group to be divided.
Q: However, there is opposition to extending the party president’s term – for example, from former Regional Revitalization Minister Shigeru Ishiba.
Nikai: Even before I made my recent statement, Mr. Ishiba had stated on a TV program on July 12 that “this is a matter of course if there is a just cause and the LDP so decides.”
Q: Another issue on which you are expected to play an important role is Okinawa. You met with Governor Takeshi Onaga at the LDP headquarters on Aug. 10 when the governor was in Tokyo.
Nikai: That’s right. We had a meaningful discussion. Okinawa is also a very important issue for the LDP, and this is not an issue that can be left in the hands of the Okinawans alone. Specifically, various data clearly show that Okinawa is still lagging behind the rest of Japan economically. Politicians need to do everything possible to help the Okinawan economy catch up with the mainland without being told by Okinawa.
Q: It is a little known fact that you have had a close relationship with Mr. Onaga dating back many years.
Nikai: That’s true. I have known Sukehiro, his older brother who used to be a vice governor of Okinawa, since his college days. When I was parliamentary vice minister of transport, I used to go to Okinawa for ceremonies relating to ports there, so we renewed our acquaintance and became close. That was when I was serving my second or third term in the Diet, so it must have been more than 20 years ago. I was introduced to his younger brother, who was then a local assembly member. During our recent meeting, people around us were taken by surprise because they did not know we were close friends. (laughter)
Q: Will this relationship be helpful in finding a breakthrough in the Okinawa problems?
Nikai: I don’t think so. It will not be that simple. Since Mr. Onaga represents the popular will in Okinawa, I think he has mixed feelings. However, after the recent meeting, talk about it being my turn to visit Okinawa next has naturally started to emerge. By persisting in holding meetings like this, his feelings will change little by little. If everybody takes an aggressive stance, like what’s happening right now, no progress can be made.
Q: In the 1990s, during the time of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama, Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka and other senior LDP officials visited Okinawa many times to persuade the local people on the base issues. It seems that Mr. Onaga thinks that the LDP’s attitude now is different from what it used to be.
Nikai: I think I can understand what you’re saying. Both sides are now in a fix as a result of the process of exchanging heated arguments up until now. We need to make efforts to stand with the Okinawan people with compassion. It will not do to simply cut the budget if things don’t work out.
Q: Prime Minister Abe will start to make serious efforts for constitutional revision at the Diet session this fall. What are your thoughts on this?
Nikai: If we declare we will revise the constitution arrogantly, there will be proportionate agitation from the forces against constitutional revision. I have long maintained that in-depth discussions are necessary. It won’t do to work on this issue when there is fierce opposition. I think it will be better to start deliberations quietly. Komeito still maintains a cautious stance on amending the constitution.
We have not held discussions with Komeito on what to do with the constitution and when. The LDP and Komeito hold policy consultations and officials of both parties exchange views on a regular basis. There is no need for one side alone to charge ahead and get excited. Engaging in thorough discussions and giving consideration to the other side’s position is the secret to maintaining a long and trouble-free coalition.
Q: You have extensive connections in the Komeito.
Nikai: I once founded the New Frontier Party with Komeito members. I have had a long relationship with them. I would like to express my unreserved gratitude to the members of Komeito and its support organization, who were instrumental in realizing the LDP’s return to political power. I believe that discussing the constitution issues with Komeito thoroughly is of particular importance.
Q: Another high-profile issue that the LDP needs to deal with is the Emperor’s wish to abdicate. How will you handle this?
Nikai: Basically, I think this will depend on Prime Minister Abe’s decision. I believe it is important to watch public opinion trends closely and come up with a conclusion at an early date. We will certainly have to heed the views of experts as well, but this is not a matter that needs to be discussed for years.
Q: Before the House of Councillors election, you differed with Finance Minister Taro Aso and Ms. Tomomi Inada on the postponement of the consumption tax increase. There is concern that hard feelings may still linger in the administration.
Nikai: I have good relations with both Mr. Aso and Ms. Inada at present. No one is saying “you had a different opinion at that time.” Ms. Inada is now the defense minister. If there were hard feelings, that would not have happened.
Q: Your excellent coordination ability is likely to become crucial for the Abe administration from now on, not only with regard to the Okinawa issues or relations with Governor Koike, but also in diplomacy with China, the ROK, and other Asian countries. Sankei Shimbun wrote about your “mutually beneficial strategic relationship” with Prime Minister Abe.
Nikai: Such talk about strategy or mutual benefits is nonsense. My job is to work for the advancement of the Abe administration faithfully. (Abridged)