Will Abe’s ship of state sail into calmer waters before it falls apart?

By Li Ruoyu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/9 21:03:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe completed reshuffling Japan's cabinet on August 3, "Abe-Maru," the "Abe ship of state," set sail again. (In fact, many Japanese are referring to Abe's ship of state as a "ship made of mud." This is because they think sooner or later the ship will disintegrate or collapse.)

If previous cabinet reshuffles were renovations of the interior decorations of this ship, then the cabinet reshuffle on August 3 was more like an emergency repair after the hull was breached by a series of scandals.

Abe's cabinet's support rate declined sharply due to this series of scandals. Faced with the storm, Shinzo Abe, the captain of the ship, has to embark on an urgent overhaul. The Moritomo Gakuen, which chose Abe's wife as honorary principal, purchased a plot of land from the government at a massively discounted price. Kake Gakuen, an educational institution whose director, Kotaro Kake, is a close friend of Abe, won approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone. Former defense minister Tomomi Inada, supported by Abe, has done the wrong thing many times in a coverup related to military records that would show the danger Japanese troops faced in South Sudan.

All of these dilemmas are the result of Abe's poor judgment driven by his massive ego.

The most prominent feature of the new Abe cabinet is that it has desalinated Abe's personal flavor, and focused more on the interests of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Lawmakers like Taro Kono and Seiko Noda, who have a certain distance from Abe or even are potential threats to Abe's leadership, were named Cabinet members. In particular, the appointment of Taro Kono as foreign minister drew international attention. 

One of the important reasons is that Taro Kono is the political heir of the elder statesman Yohei Kono. In 1993, Yohei Kono, Japan's chief cabinet secretary at that time, issued the famous Kono Statement, offering an apology to the "comfort women" forced to work in wartime brothels. For this reason, he has a high political reputation in surrounding countries like China and South Korea, which once suffered under Japan's aggression.

Abe's appointment of Yohei Kono's eldest son Taro Kono as the foreign minister is also widely interpreted as a goodwill signal to China and South Korea. In this regard, South Korea responded positively as it was in a diplomatic deadlock with Japan recently due to the issue of "comfort women."

However, does Abe's appointment of Taro Kono as a foreign minister mean a full transition of Japan's foreign policy? I do not think so.

Even if we can think that Taro Kono completely inherited his father's politics, we still need to answer a question, that is, whether the Japanese foreign minister can independently develop foreign policy. The answer is obviously no.

The cabinet members, appointed by Abe, are responsible to the prime minister. The cabinet is only a screw that the prime minister assembled into a machine to push his own policy.

And when Taro Kono announces his own initiatives, he must not only consider Abe's wishes, but also be influenced by the bureaucracy within the diplomatic system. For the reasons mentioned above, when Taro Kono assumed the position, he did not support renegotiating a "comfort women" agreement between Tokyo and Seoul which was widely opposed in South Korea.

However, there is no need to be too pessimistic about the future development of China-Japan relations and Korea-Japan relations. With Abe's decline in Japanese political dominance, he may take a more pragmatic position to deal with relations with neighboring countries. At the recent G20 summit in Hamburg, Abe changed his previous opposition to the One Belt One Road initiative. His more tactful attitude is a sign of this change.

After the cabinet reshuffle on August 3, the influence of various factions of the Liberal Democratic Party on the direction of Abe's ship of state will be even more obvious. Abe will be more cautious in dealing with foreign affairs, including relations with China, which may become an opportunity for China-Japan relations to head into calmer seas.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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