It is often said that politicians fail in the field they are best at in the end. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in haste of late to produce results in negotiations on the Northern Territories issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Ever since he was elected to LDP presidency for a third term, he has nothing to work on,” said a seasoned politician within the Liberal Democratic Party. “He is not interested in moving forward his Abenomics stimulus and the prospects for constitutional revision remains dim. Then what should he achieve to leave his name in history textbooks? On Feb. 23 next year, he will tie with Shigeru Yoshida for the number of days in office. He will be able to leave his name in history by becoming the longest-serving prime minister since Japan introduced its own constitution after surpassing Hirobumi Ito, Eisaku Sato and Taro Katsura. He also needs to produce results like with his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who signed the new Japan-U.S. security treaty, and his uncle Eisaku Sato, who realized the return of Okinawa to Japan’s sovereignty. He probably thinks that the return of the Northern Territories will be logged as another feather in his cap even if not all of the four islands are returned.”
The Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] was initially negotiating with North Korea on the return of Japanese abductees. Cabinet Intelligence Director Shigeru Kitamura, an aide of Abe, secretly approached a senior member of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the intelligence apparatus of North Korea, but failed. In this process, Kitamura was hard up against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a different communication channel with the regime.
This failure prompted the Kantei to shift focus to negotiations with Russia. Of course, President Putin, a former KGB agent, should be aware of such behind-the-scenes circumstances Japan had.
Russia has already deployed advanced surface-to-ship missiles and cutting-edge fighter jets to both Kunashiri Island and Etorofu Island; on the other hand, it demands Japan state in diplomatic documents the Northern Territories not be covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty as a condition to sign a peace treaty. It would be good for Japan if the return of even one or two islands was realized. But the current situation suggests that Japan is underestimated.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai spoke with reporters on this: “If the government changes from the conventional policy (of demanding the return of the four islands), the Diet approval as well as public understanding needs to be sought.”
A senior LDP official expounded on Nikai’s remarks.
“Nikai believes that Japan should demand the return of all of the four islands because they were seized illegally. The two-island deal is exactly what Russia wants Japan to accept. This pro-China politician ventures to signal a warning to the government because he wants to stimulate reactions from various circles. Behind this move, he is trying to hold in check Naoya Imai, executive political secretary to the prime minister, Eiichi Hasegawa, special advisor to the prime minister, as well as Suga, who controls the Kantei.”
The proposed revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act are also sparking opposition not only from the opposition camp but also the LDP. Seemingly the bill aimed at expanding the acceptance of foreign labor came into spotlight at the extraordinary Diet session all of a sudden, but when the bill was submitted to the Diet, the scenario was already crafted that the system will be introduced “from April 2019.” So Diet deliberations proceeded with full of question marks even from the start.
Another senior LDP politician explained: “We were not informed in advance at all. The issue emerged all of a sudden at the behest of the Kantei. Prime Minister Abe says ‘this is not an immigration policy,’ but what this indicates is that Japan, which is the world’s fourth largest country in the acceptance of foreign workers, is poised to open the door to more immigrants. Conservative members as well as supporters close to Abe are upset at the government’s hasty handling of the issue, but we are ‘ordered’ to keep our mouth shut and not to oppose.”
The momentum of constitutional revision is also petering out within the LDP. Abe’s pick of his “buddy” Hakubun Shimomura as chair of LDP’s headquarters for the promotion of revision of the Constitution is demotivating even pro-revision Diet members. He also named his another buddy, former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Yoshitaka Shindo, as executive director of the Commission on the Constitution within the Lower House. “Especially on the constitutional revision, anti-revision members must be included in discussions,” said a former aide to Abe. “Moves on constitutional revision have completely come to a halt.”
Anti-Abe moves are quietly emerging within the LDP to dump Abe. “If no action is taken, the LDP will surely lose in next summer’s Upper House election,” said one of so-called “Abe Children,” who were elected to office under Abe’s leadership. “If he calls a snap election on the same day, the LDP may get kicked out of power.”
Meanwhile, Abe is sizing up ways to hold dual elections of the two chambers of parliament to break a logjam in the Diet. If he can call next year’s ordinary Diet session on Jan. 4, the scenario of dissolving the Lower House on June 2 and holding a dual election either on June 30 or July 7 will become possible.
What is worthy of attention in the latest political developments is that Toru Hashimoto, Liberal Party Representative Ichiro Ozawa and former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who belongs to the Democratic Party for the People, met on the evening of Nov. 7. This should not be simply interpreted as a move to pursue the political realignment within the opposition camp. Rather this is in lockstep with moves within the LDP to “disembark from Abe’s leadership.” While Abe is busy with diplomatic outings across the globe, a huge shake-up move is already taking place. (Abridged)