“Without the trust of the people, no government can stand. I will always hold myself accountable and try to explain things sincerely whenever an issue arises,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a news conference in June last year.
This statement of reflection emerged as the approval rating of Abe’s administration plummeted due to favoritism scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, run by people linked to Abe or his wife Akie. The prime minister’s words now sound hollow.
Three months later, Abe dissolved the House of Representatives and called a snap election, saying that it was necessary to seek voters’ will to break the impasse the country was in. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party won the race, but the favoritism scandal stuck, against the prime minister’s calculations.
The subsequent revelation of public document falsification committed by Finance Ministry officials in connection with the Moritomo Gakuen affair undermined the foundations of the government’s explanation about how the ministry ended up selling a state-owned land plot at a heavily discounted price to the school operator. A document released by the prefectural government of Ehime in western Japan, where Kake planned to build a veterinary school, showed that Abe’s aide offered favorable treatment to officials of the educational institution.
These revelations indicate that the judgment rendered by the people in the lower house election last year was based on mistaken information as far as the Moritomo and Kake issues are concerned. They also mean that the premise for the two-year-long Diet debate over those issues has crumbled. The administration bears responsibility for this deplorable outcome, which festered from the administration’s disrespectful treatment of the Diet representing the people of Japan.
The prime minister, however, shifted the focus of the debate from the favoritism scandals to the management of public documents. He forced bureaucrats involved in the falsification of the papers to take responsibility, but sealed off questions about his own political responsibility.
A certain percentage of people suspect that Moritomo Gakuen, which was close to the premier’s wife, and Kake Educational Institution, which was run by the prime minister’s friend, received favorable treatment in administrative procedures, and that Abe is trying to cover the scandals up. Such suspicions have surfaced in the results of opinion polls.
In a Mainichi Shimbun poll conducted at the beginning of September, 37 percent said they supported the administration while 41 percent did not. Among those opposed to the government, 48 percent said it was because they didn’t support Abe himself. This ratio was higher than the 31 percent who said they were negative about the administration because they have no expectations for its policies.
In a poll conducted by public broadcaster NHK in August, 41.9 percent of those who don’t support the government said they “cannot trust the character” of Abe. Only 6.8 percent said their support is based on their “trust in the character” of the prime minister.
People’s trust in the prime minister as a political leader has failed to improve despite his long tenure spanning five years and nine months. The reason behind this is Abe’s political style. The premier says he will explain things to the public, but does not answer critical questions. He shifts the focus in debate and tries to survive the moment.
Even within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a growing number of members are concerned that the prime minister bears an image of “dishonesty and unfairness.” This became apparent when former party secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, Abe’s challenger in the upcoming LDP presidential election, was criticized for launching a “personal attack” by choosing “honesty and fairness” as his campaign slogan.
Ishiba is trying to turn voters’ attention toward Abe’s political style, and the premier knows it. That is why the prime minister has repeatedly stated he has to go a long way to go in character maturity and that he needs to be modest and considerate. Such comments appear as bids to deflect Ishiba’s salvos.
If the prime minister really wants to restore the people’s trust, however, he should align his deeds with his words and provide sincere explanations.
During a debate organized by the Japan National Press Club, Ishiba discussed with Abe about how democracies should work. When Ishiba demanded that even inconvenient information should be conveyed to the people, Abe replied that he would convey precise information. Regarding the falsification and destruction of documents by the Finance Ministry over the Moritomo affair, the prime minister merely said that what was needed was “management” of such papers — he did not mention the necessity of storing those documents for public reference.
Based on these remarks, one is tempted to construe the premier’s attitude as being set on managing information inconvenient to himself in a way that keeps it out of the public eye.
Ishiba asked the prime minister to cooperate with the opposition in the Diet, saying, “People are behind the opposition parties.” Abe did not respond.
Avoiding explanations when it comes to the opposition means Abe is making light of voters who support the opposition.
In the LDP presidential race, Abe has limited the number of debates with Ishiba and his stump speeches, while showing up for interviews with selected media. Apparently, he has turned down interview requests from media organizations critical of him to avoid questions about the Moritomo and Kake affairs.
What does it mean to use only media outlets favorable to him to avoid the reporting of information inconvenient to him? Will this not deepen the division between his supporters and detractors and leave him talking only to his supporters?
The inherent role of politics is to mediate for people with different opinions and make sure that no one is left behind.
But the prime minister’s political style of dividing the Japanese people into enemies and friends has caused scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats, and his political posture of avoiding inconvenient realities has led to a loss of people’s confidence in the administration.