“We meet as friends, but we never seek or give favors,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Diet, or Japanese Parliament on July 25th. Mr. Abe sat in the middle of a large parliamentary room surrounded by ministers to deny under oath for the second time the accusations of favoritism and corruption that have quickly left doubts in the minds of the Japanese people about the Prime Minister’s intentions.
Just months ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on the path to become the longest standing Prime Minister in November 2019 since World War 2. His approval rating was high, as the population backed his focus on improving the economy and lifting Japan’s struggling growth rate. A skillful international diplomat, he is also one of the few world leaders who has been able to successfully negotiate with President Trump. He was so well liked that his party, the Liberal Democrats, even altered their rules to allow him a 3rd term in office.
Recently, however, even some of his most dedicated supporters have turned against him, leaving the Prime Minister on defense as his country questions his every decision. His approval rating has plummeted to 26%, and Mr. Abe suffered a major setback when all of the candidates from his party were rejected in the recent Tokyo assembly election.
So what caused this shocking, abrupt turnaround? Oddly enough, it all began with a kindergarten.
The skepticism started on February 27, 2017, when four kindergarteners raised their right hands towards where Mr. Abe sat at a sports event at a kindergarten in Osaka. They shouted “Go fight, Prime Minister Abe.” And then, “Adults should protect the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima. Chinese and South Korean people who treat Japan as bad should amend their minds.” Although Mr. Abe quickly denounced the children’s comments about territorial disputes in the East China Sea as “inappropriate,” and brushed off any accusations of involvement in the planning of these cheers, the media did not let the issue go so easily, continuing to investigate long after the incident occurred.
The media’s findings on the teachings of the kindergarten that these children attended, and later, its connection to Prime Minister Abe, was the beginning of the long train of controversies that landed Mr. Abe in his position of struggle and mistrust today.
The Moritomo Gakuen Group is the founder of the kindergarten whose teachings were presumed to have led to the children’s public comments. The nationalist kindergarten’s goal is to foster patriotism in its students. Kindergarteners are required to bow to paintings of the imperial family every morning and take school trips to military bases. All students also have to sing the national anthem daily, and recite the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which preaches loyalty to the imperial family and sacrifice for the well being of Japan. The educational mentality of this kindergarten is one that reflects the militarist education that was used before and during World War II.
Originally, the group planned to open a new primary school this coming April. However, before they could close the deal, an oddity was discovered in their purchase of the land that was to become the school. The Moritomo Gakuen Group bought this government-owned land for a seventh of its actual price.
As this was exposed, all eyes turned to Prime Minister Abe, since he was known to be good friends with President of the Moritomo Gakuen Group, Yasuni Kagoike.
The Prime Minister is currently facing Diet hearings on the grounds of favoritism and corruption as parliament suspects that Mr. Abe nudged finance ministers to lower the price for his good friend.
The Diet’s case is built off of not only the fact that Kagoike and Abe were close friends, but they have also referenced other important personal relations with the potential primary school. In addition, they are using evidence that Mr. Abe’s political stances and beliefs align closely with those that inspire the teachings of the kindergarten.
A big piece of evidence is that Mr. Abe’s wife Akia Abe was given the title “honorary principal” of the primary school and was recorded saying, “My husband greatly supports your education system.” In addition, Kagoike testified under oath that Mr. Abe had given him an envelope with one million yen in donations for the school.
The Prime Minister’s beliefs also line up with those of the kindergarten. One of Abe’s primary goals since becoming Prime Minister has been to amend the Japanese Constitution to give more power to Japan’s uniquely pacifist military. According to the current Constitution, Japan’s military is called the “Self Defense Forces” and, per its name, is only permitted to act in defense of Japan on Japanese soil, and is never allowed to actively involve itself in war. Although many citizens are proud of their peaceful and unique Constitution, Mr. Abe sees the American-created document in the aftermath of World War II unfairly limiting to Japan’s ability to engage in global security issues, such as supporting their allies, as well as getting involved in the escalating threat that is North Korea. He has already passed a bill that will allow the Self-Defense Forces to fight in conflicts outside of Japan in certain circumstances, and plans to further loosen restraints on the military to give it more power. He has even mentioned changing its name. In this way, the Prime Minister’s thoughts seem to echo the teachings of the kindergarten; he seems to want to re-militarize the state, going back to Japan’s pre-war era military style.
The Diet’s investigation of Abe’s relations with the kindergarten is only the beginning, however.
In the past couple of months, a second major conflict of interest has arisen in the path of the Prime Minister. Even though the demands for vets and pets have been rapidly decreasing in Japan, the government curiously approved the opening of the Kake Educational Institution of Veterinarians on government land, and also approved millions of dollars in government grants to be given to the institution. Kotaro Kate, the president of the institution is, once again, a very close friend of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister has also faced criticism recently regarding an “anti-conspiracy bill” that he passed earlier this year. The government claims the bill is needed to stop terrorist attacks before they occur by requiring perpetrators of 277 specific crimes to be tried under charges of conspiracy. However, if one takes a closer look, many of the potential “terrorist” actions include “hunting endangered animals, running an unlicensed motorboat race, and stealing plants from a forest reserve.” Many fear that the bill could be used to incriminate normal people who challenge the government and limit freedom of thought and expression, just as Russia’s anti-terrorism bill has allowed them to do recently.
In addition, controversy surrounds the Defense Minister, Army Chief, and the Prime Minister due to accusations of lying to the Diet about about the status of Japanese peacekeepers in South Sudan engaged in a UN peacekeeping mission. Both Defense Minister and Army Chief recently resigned because of these accusations. Because of the Self-Defense Forces’ peaceful restrictions, as opposed to those from other countries, Japanese peacekeepers are under much stricter limits as to which missions they can participate in. They are supposed to be sent only on missions to peaceful areas where there is no major conflict. 330 Japanese peacekeepers have been stationed in South Sudan for about five years, and have been said to be doing low-risk work such as rebuilding and planning infrastructure after the civil war. Although Abe and Ms. Inada, the defense minister, told the media that the area was still peaceful, records from the peacekeepers themselves say otherwise. The records testify to the violence around where Japanese peacekeepers work, and chaos inside of the UN leadership hierarchy. Under pressure, both Mr. Abe and Ms. Inada said that the records had not survived, although it was later found that they did. Investigators are currently exploring the possibility that Mr. Abe knowingly lied about the records. This investigation was yet another blow to the Prime Minister’s already struggling government.
In recent months, Prime Minister Abe’s seemingly unwaverable support has come crashing down. Recognizing the gravity of his situation, he has been trying to regain support in any way he can before next year’s elections. He has publicly announced his return to universally supported issues such as the economy, and away from controversial goals like amending the constitution and giving more power to the military. On August 3rd, he also reshuffled his cabinet, firing his most unpopular ministers. Although he previously lead a very conservative government, he shifted toward a more moderate stance with his reappointments in an effort to gain a wider pool of voters from other parts of the political spectrum.
As of now, Prime Minister Abe is still struggling for support. Mistrust, skepticism, and controversy have created uncertainty about the country’s future leadership. Opposition parties are gearing up and taking this opportunity to begin campaigning for the election that, just months ago, they thought they had no hope of winning. Time will only tell if Prime Minister Abe will be able to regain support. However, from the look of his still plummeting approval rating and the lengthening list of accusations against him, for the first time in his seemingly invincible political career, his chances seem very slim.
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