Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, faces a tough two days of meetings when he arrives today in Mar-a-Lago to meet President Donald Trump. Abe has to persuade Trump not to neglect Japan’s interests in the planned summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea; some officials in Tokyo fear that the US might strike an agreement that would involve Kim’s giving up his long-range missiles while keeping those that can reach Japan. Abe also wants to obtain for Japan an exemption from Trump’s new steel and aluminum tariffs—but without being drawn into a bilateral trade deal to address what Trump perceives as Japan’s unjustified trade surplus with the US.
How Abe performs matters more than usual. At home, he is under unprecedented pressure. A pair of scandals that have tarnished his administration refuse to die. Barely a day goes by without the revelation of another detail that undermines Abe’s record as, arguably, the most successful postwar prime minister of Japan. Things have become so bad that Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister and mentor of Abe, recently suggested that it could be time for Abe to step down, while on Saturday several thousand people took part in by far the largest protest to date, holding signs that said “Abe quit!”
The first of these scandals arose last year when it emerged that the finance ministry had sold a plot of public land to Moritomo Gakuen, a company that runs private schools of a nationalistic bent, at a bargain-basement price. Officially, the plot was sold at a steep discount because, the finance ministry claimed, the land was contaminated and would cost a great deal to clean up. Despite denials from Abe and the finance ministry, many suspect that the deal was so advantageous to Moritomo Gakuen because Yasunori Kagoike, then head of the company, was a friend of Abe and, especially, of his wife, Akie. The affair seemed to have blown over, until last month, when a newspaper revealed that ministry officials had doctored fourteen documents presented to Japan’s national legislature during inquiries it held last year.
Forced to investigate the falsifications, the ministry admitted that the changes included, among others, the deletion of references to Akie and remarks she supposedly made in support of the planned school, of which she was honorary president until she stepped down in February last year. Abe himself and the finance minister, Taro Aso, blamed the subterfuge on a handful of bureaucrats; one, Nobuhisa Sagawa, has resigned. That controversy rumbles on, but this month the central issue of apparent cronyism came to the fore again when the finance ministry disclosed that it had also tried to get Moritomo Gakuen to support its story about why the land was sold so cheaply. (The company refused to do so.)
A second scandal from 2017 has also reared its head again. Last week, a newspaper published a memo it had obtained from Ehime prefectural government that seemed to explain why the local authority last year granted a license, and so quickly, to Kake Gakuen, a company run by a close friend of Abe’s, to start a new veterinary school. The memo, which Ehime’s governor admitted existed following the report, said that an official in Abe’s office had called the issuing of the license “a prime-ministerial matter.” Both Abe and his former aide have denied that this was so.
The prime minister’s difficulties were compounded by his government’s admission that the Self-Defense Forces, Japan’s military in all but name, had covered up that it still had logs from its stints in Iraq and South Sudan. Last year, the then defense minister and Abe protégé Tomomi Inada resigned when it emerged that the SDF had some logs on South Sudan that the defense ministry had earlier said had been discarded. Further logs on South Sudan and Iraq have now been discovered.
The peacekeeping stints were controversial in domestic politics because of the nation’s constitutional commitment to pacifism, and the logs matter because they record whether Japan is straying into a combat situation, which is banned by the constitution. The records’ professed absence thus added to the public’s unease, and when they turned out to exist after all, this only reinforced the impression of another government cover-up and anxieties about a lack of civilian oversight of the military.
Politicians, political observers, and the Japanese public do not consider it simply mischance or a coincidence that these imbroglios have emerged under Abe’s watch. As one member of the Constitutional Democratic Party, the main opposition party, put it, “Japanese citizens are starting to suspect that the prime minister is the source of the disease that is discharging this pus.” Even some generally supportive members of Abe’s own, ruling Liberal Democratic Party agree. “We need to consider that there is a reason this is happening under Abe,” one told me.
Shinzo Abe has done much good for Japan, unexpectedly so. When, after a miserable first term as prime minister in 2006–2007 marred by scandals and illness, Abe returned to power in 2012, he appeared to have learned some lessons. By the cautious standards of Japan’s salaryman-like leaders, Abe is bold and decisive. His plan to reinvigorate Japan and foster a sense of national pride comes with some worrying baggage—notably, his revisionist view of wartime history that refuses to acknowledge some of Japan’s aggressions and questions whether those who worked as “comfort women” in Japanese military brothels were forced to do so—but the country badly needed invigoration. “Abenomics,” his plan to revitalize the economy by pumping money into the economy, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms, has fallen short of its promises—in particular, a target of holding inflation to 2 percent and reforms of the labor market and Japan’s social security system. Even so, the country is enjoying its longest stretch of economic growth in years and wages are rising.
Abe has given Japan much more international clout, too. It helps that he has been in power long enough to build a rapport with other foreign leaders, in a country where prime ministers have often come and gone very quickly. Abe is now the longest-serving leader within the Group of Seven nations besides Germany’s Angela Merkel. One of his notable successes has been to build a close relationship with President Trump, cannily wooing him with gifts such as a gold-plated golf club and a white baseball cap with gold embroidery reading “Shinzo & Donald. Make Alliance Even Greater.” His 2015 revisions to Japan’s security laws were highly contested at home, but they have pleased international allies since the changes have enabled Japan to pull its weight by taking a greater part in peacekeeping operations.
With the US taking a protectionist turn, Japan has become the champion of free trade in Asia. This year, it led the remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to conclude a trade pact—in spite of President Trump’s pulling the US out of the agreement. This was an astounding position for Japan to adopt, given its own protectionist past.
It has long been clear, though, that both his party and voters generally consider Abe’s reign a mixed blessing. Abe has led the party to three landslide electoral victories (most recently in October last year) in large part because the Liberal Democratic Party lacked an alternative, and there was no serious challenger either within or without the party. Polls show that voters tend to see Abe as the least bad option. Party members speak of backing him as long as he continues to lead them to wins at the polls. Thanks to his style and his durability—qualities that manifest in both successes and ills—Abe has been the most powerful prime minister Japan has had for decades.
The latest round of scandals have brought into focus Abe’s handling of Japan’s bureaucracy and the way he has concentrated power in the Kantei, the prime minister’s office. It is often his staff and advisers that write policy, especially where it concerns the economy or military matters, sidelining the ministries. Since 2014, a body under the control of his office has made all major personnel decisions regarding bureaucrats, an arrangement that creates an incentive for them to do things to please Abe. It is understandable, then, that they may try to work out what he wants without his having to say it, a process known in Japanese as sontaku. There may be no evidence that Abe or his finance minister directly ordered the cover-up in the Moritomo affair, but then, critics argue, it amounts to much the same if the bureaucrats anticipated that Abe would want to grant favors to his friends. That, one LDP member told me, suggests that Abe has created “an unhealthy atmosphere”—effectively, a system of clientelism.
Abe’s dominance extends beyond the bureaucracy, too. At times, he has seemed to depart from democratic norms. He has shown a dislike of critical media, for example, for which a UN special rapporteur has repeatedly criticized Japan. In 2013, there was uproar when Abe appointed to the board of the national public broadcaster, NHK, several members who shared his markedly conservative views on Japan’s wartime past (the head and board of NHK has since changed—for the better). Television executives have been hauled in for dressing-downs after airing programs critical of the government. Abe also passed an anti-conspiracy law last year that gives the government sweeping new security powers. Ostensibly, this was a counter-terrorism measure ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but some fear it could be abused to stifle legitimate protest and dissent.
Abe’s very response to the scandals has bordered on showing a disregard for parliamentary process. He has apologized for breaching trust, but he and Aso have resolutely refused to take any personal responsibility for the business—in spite of polls showing that over 70 percent of respondents thought the finance minister, at least, should resign. The opposition is infuriated that the government won’t come clean, and that details of the scandals have been wrung out of it bit by bit by the media and themselves. The government’s response in the national legislature (or Diet)—offering up Sagawa only after pressure, and refusing to make Akie give testimony—smacks of contempt. “What is going on in the Diet is not about truth,” Tetsuro Fukuyama of the Constitutional Democratic Party told me. Few politicians or members of the public believe that witnesses testifying to parliamentarians will help get any closer to the facts.
Abe’s approval rating has, according to a poll by Nippon TV, sunk to 26.7 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2012. Another survey showed that two thirds of voters do not trust Abe’s protestations that he was not involved in the scandals. The Liberal Democratic Party will hold elections for a new party leader in the fall. Abe had been considered a shoo-in—indeed, the party rules were changed to allow him to run for a third term. Abe’s party—and the Japanese people in general—face the question of whether the price of keeping him on is beginning to outweigh the positive effects of his tenure.
Sarah Birke is the Tokyo bureau chief for The Economist. Before that, she was the magazine’s Middle East bureau chief. She has lived in various countries, including Syria and, currently, Japan.