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Amari continues to exercise influence as policy guru in Nagatacho

  • August 24, 2021
  • , Nikkei , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

In late June, Amari Akira (71), chair of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Research Commission on the Tax System, sat down to talk with a former cabinet minister from another LDP faction in the latter’s office at the Diet Members’ Building.


The former minister, who is an old acquaintance of Amari’s, said with a serious look on his face: “Please run in the party presidential election. You’re the only one.” Surprised, Amari replied: “I understand what you’re saying, but I have no intention of running.”


Other LDP members, such as Suzuki Shunichi (68), vice chair of the Aso faction to which Amari also belongs, had also urged Amari to run in the LDP presidential election, saying, “You’re ahead of the times. You should be the next prime minister.” Amari, however, has joined Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aso Taro (80) in supporting Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s reelection.


Amari was one of the main people responsible for the historically long reign of the former Abe administration. When the [second] Abe administration was launched in 2012, Amari was appointed minister of state for economic and fiscal policy and minister in charge of economic revitalization. He delivered a steady stream of accomplishments, including leading the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations toward a broad agreement in October 2015.


Around that time, Aso was telling Amari, “If something were to happen to Abe [as prime minister], we would turn to you.” Aso apparently viewed Amari as a possible candidate to succeed then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (66).


Things fell apart in January 2016. With his resignation from his ministerial post due to a money scandal, Amari’s ambition for the premiership evaporated. Sometimes, Amari muses, “If only I were ten years younger…” But members of his family always remind him: “You’ve done enough.”


Since his resignation from the cabinet post, Amari has focused his efforts on pursuing a wide range of policy agendas.


Most notably, Amari was the first politician to emphasize the importance of economic security and subsequently led the discussion in the government and the LDP. Economic security involves issues in which economic and security matters are deeply intertwined, such as export control and the outflow of dual-use technology overseas. It has become a major focus of the U.S.-China conflict.


In 2017, Amari founded the Parliamentarians’ League for Rule-making Strategy as a platform for leading economic security initiatives. At a meeting of the league held toward the end of that year, Kokubun Toshifumi (45), a professor at Tama University Graduate School and advisor to Amari, mentioned that China has made it a national strategy to establish a system for collecting a wide range of global data.


“What is the government’s plan for countering China?” Amari asked bureaucrats attending the meeting. What he had in mind was China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” a large-scale economic program that would place developing countries under China’s influence through economic assistance. As silence fell over the meeting participants, Amari was heard muttering: “Political leadership is the only way to achieve economic security.”


The COVID-19 pandemic exposed Japan’s fragility by bringing to light Japan’s dependence on China in procuring medical supplies and other necessities. In May 2019, Amari’s group urged the government to establish an economic unit in the National Security Secretariat to handle economic security issues. Based on the league’s recommendation, the team was launched in April 2020.


In terms of the private sector, Rakuten President and CEO Mikitani Koji (56) contacted Amari in March to discuss potential investment in the company by a major Chinese IT corporation as part of Rakuten’s effort to secure preliminary consent from relevant parties. Amari asked Mikitani: “Are you aware that your company might be excluded from U.S. supply chains?”


Also in March, LINE President Idezawa Takeshi (48)  offered an explanation for the finding that private data accumulated by LINE had been accessible to outside parties through the company’s Chinese affiliates. Amari had previously conveyed to Idezawa that LINE should be aware that the company’s role as a platformer involved giving consideration to protecting national interests as the company deals with public goods.


In Nagatacho, where policy and political power play are inextricably linked, Amari’s ability to communicate sometimes causes alarm. When he became the chair of the Parliamentarians’ League for the Promotion of the Semiconductor Strategy, Amari invited Abe and Aso to join as top advisors in the hope of emphasizing the importance of resurrecting Japan’s semiconductor industry. This move caused unexpected ripples.


The Nikai faction led by Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro (82) interpreted the move as a step toward becoming the next party secretary-general. “It’s never occurred to me,” Amari said. Members who shared Amari’s policy perspective took the league’s leadership positions, but core members from the Nikai faction were not among them.


In 2012, Amari left the Yamasaki faction (now the Ishihara faction) led by former LDP vice-president Yamasaki Taku (84) after Yamasaki named Ishihara Nobuteru (64), who joined the faction in 2007, as his successor. The designation came as a surprise to Amari, who had been with the faction since its launch in 1998.


“I will make you my successor,” Yamasaki said later to try to pacify Amari, but the ties between them were never repaired and they ended up opposing each other at every turn.


Today, some in the LDP still believe that “if Amari had stayed in the Ishihara faction, he would have been a candidate for prime minister.” In a way, however, Amari gained support from Abe and Aso because he severed his ties with Yamasaki, who never got along with Abe or Aso either.


“Let’s take turns as the chief cabinet secretary,” Suga once joked to Amari when he was serving in the position.


In the Aso faction, there are voices of support for Amari becoming the next LDP secretary-general. “That’s not my style,” Amari says, avoiding giving a clear answer. However, it’s not hard to imagine him being intrigued by the prospect of holding a post that would allow him to exert his influence not only over party affairs but also over key policy issues.


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