Interview with the Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai
By Takakazu Matsuda, Special Advisor to the Mainichi Shimbun
Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai is a focus of attention in Nagatacho, where the party’s loss of power to the government has been the norm for a long time. By revealing his opinions on long-outstanding issues, Nikai appears to be providing a counterweight to the trend toward consolidation of power in the Prime Minister Abe’s office. What will his future moves be? A Senior Advisor to the Mainichi Shimbun interviewed Nikai.
Q: Discussion of the term extension of the party presidency has begun. Agreement on the proposal would extend Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s term (scheduled to expire in September 2018). You are a senior officer and at the center of the Liberal Democratic Party, yet you are clearly working to support the extension. What is it that makes you believe in the Abe administration?
A: I don’t think the idea of term extension is far-fetched for the people or the LDP. PM Abe has visited more than 60 countries in his diplomatic engagement, and enhanced Japan’s weight and presence through summit meetings. Abenomics has corrected an over-appreciation of the yen and a weak stock market. Various economic indices have improved. An initiative for extending the term of the party presidency should not be surprising in the case of a prime minister with such accomplishements.
Q: I must say that the short-lived administrations before Abe were a disadvantage, especially for Japan’s diplomacy.
A: Indeed. They say that at international gatherings people asked one another “who will be the next Japanese prime minister?” instead of greeting each other with “hello” or “how are you.” The Japanese people understand that the frequent change of administrations is not beneficial for the country, and that understanding is contributing to the stability of the current administration.
Q: On the other hand, the initiative for the term extension now is encountering opposition from people interested in succeding Prime Minister Abe, such as former secretary general Shigeru Ishiba and Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida. How do you plan to reach a consensus in the party?
A: Although the Japanese economy is still not healthy, under the Abe administration it is making progress toward the recovery. So there are many who want to give more time to the Abe administration. However, it is true that there are people who want a change in leadership. It is fine to have different opinions; we welcome them. The important thing is to form a consensus that satisfies a membership with a variety of views. The term extension does not only affect the Abe administration; it will enable anyone to run for the party presidency beyond two terms, six years, if he/she has the support of the nation and party members. I don’t intend to hurry in discussions for reaching any specific conclusion.
Q: Talking about “variety,” Yohei Kono, a former party president, said in an interview (Mainichi Shimbun column, August 25, 2016, evening edition), that the LDP Secretary General’s office has recovered the true character inherent in the office. He seems to feel that a variety of opinions are now surfacing in the party. Is that intentional?
A: No, no. I am doing what I usually do. I’m doing nothing special. The office of the LDP Secretary General needs to be a place where anyone from the Diet, municipal assemblies, party members, etc. can freely come and go. I always tell myself that listening to these people’s voices is important.
Q: Do you think the difference between you and the prime minister as politicians helps maintain stability of the administration?
A: No. That is not the case. Prime Minister Abe imparts a sense of stability to start with, and he is considerate of party dynamics. He gives persons who made a mistake a second chance to engage in politics by appointing them to different positions. That kind of thing, I think, results in the current stability.
Q: In August, the month you took the post, the Emperor addressed the nation to indicate his desire to abdicate. The issue has become a focus of national attention. What is the party’s policy toward a possible abdication?
A: We took his address very seriously. I believe majority of the nation would want to fulfill his desire. The government should treat the matter earnestly.
Q: I would like to turn to diplomatic issues. Diplomacy with Japan’s neighbors such as China and South Korea is said to be a weak spot for the administration. Would you agree that the stability of the administration requires successful diplomatic relationships with neighboring countries?
A: They are our neighbors. It goes without saying that rather than a relationship in which we are on pins and needles we should create calm, consistent neighborly relations. For that goal, we must always pursue peaceful diplomacy. Regarding our relationship with China, we must enhance exchanges between the two countries’ parties. Last year, senior officers from the ruling parties visited China, including then-LDP secretary general Sadakazu Tanigaki and Komeito secretary general Yoshihisa Inoue. It’s their [China’s] turn to visit Japan. Diplomatic efforts are led by the government, but political parties must work hard, too. Ideally, beyond exchanges between Tokyo and Beijing, we should enhance rural exchanges to give depth and width to our relationship. Having an honest conversation between people is truly valuable.
Q: Regional stability in East Asia requires a good Japan-Russia relationship. Russian President Putin is now officially scheduled to visit Japan. Let me ask you a frank question: Do you think it’s true that the Japanese people are comfortable with the Abe administration’s diplomacy with Russia because PM Abe is seen as leaning toward the right and they believe he will not easily compromise?
A: To a certain extent, that is true. The prime minister’s initiative to invite President Putin to his home prefecture of Yamaguchi for talks shows his determination (to reach agreements on territorial and other unfinished issues). The summit meeting between the prime minister and President Putin may not bring completely satisfactory results, but it will provide a portal and prospects for future negotiations. That in itself will be worthwhile. As for the successive North Korean nuclear tests, the Japanese people will naturally call for measures. Our party must not just stand still and watch. The party and the government will cooperate to swiftly issue countermeasures.
Q: Now, looking inside the LDP itself again, it seems that political groups, like factions in the past, have been very active recently. After the launch of the electoral system combining single-seat and proportionally represented multiple-seat constituencies, the party leadership, including the Prime Minister’s Office, has monopolized the power of candidate endorsements and fund allocations. And the party factions, which were the main political players in the past, are said to have lost influence. What is your opinion on the recent seeming come-back of factions?
A: As politicians, we must keep learning and improving ourselves. So I don’t argue against politicians who share the same ideals gathering together to better themselves. The party cannot give mentorship and share its wisdom to every new, young member. The factions have the potential to coach young members in the skills of anticipation, disciplining themselves as politicians, waging election campaigns, and polishing policies they would like to introduce. You may say that party is a school, whereas factions are “juku” (private institution that provide supplementary education). Members have to have the determination to focus on study, not studying half the time and playing half the time, and factions can be effective in making members realize they will not be able to win the next election unless they make a greater effort.