SEOUL — President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have something new to bond over when they meet at Mar-a-Lago Tuesday: how to weather a storm of relentless political onslaughts.
Both are embroiled in controversies surrounding dodgy financial deals but, while Trump’s poll numbers are holding up, Abe’s have plummeted to record lows.
The Japanese leader is flailing so badly that former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has suggested that he should stand down at the end of June to avoid tainting the entire Liberal Democratic Party.
“When the current Diet term ends, that would be a good time for Abe to resign. No third term for him as the party president,” Koizumi, who was prime minister between 2001 and 2006, said in an interview published by the weekly magazine Aera on Monday.
The current session in Japan’s Diet, or parliament, finishes on June 20.
The scandals percolating around Abe will affect next year’s Upper House election, the former prime minister said. “Candidates will get anxious if they have to go into an election with Abe.”
Polls published on Monday showed Abe’s steadily-tanking ratings have fallen further in recent days. One, from the Nippon News Network, put his approval rating at 26.7 percent, almost four points down from March and the first time it has fallen into the 20s since Abe returned as prime minister in 2012.
Other polls put Abe in the 30s, but this is a far cry from the support levels in the 60s he was enjoying at the beginning of last year.
As many as 50,000 people protested outside the Diet over the weekend, calling Abe a “liar” and urging him to resign.
The LDP, which has been in power for all but five of the years since it was formed in 1955, changed its rules last year to allow leaders to seek a third term at the helm. At the time, Abe seemed a shoo-in to serve until 2021, which would make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and give him a chance to pursue some of his controversial goals.
But in the ensuing months, he has been plagued by a cronyism scandal that won’t go away but has yet to be damning enough to topple him.
Abe has not been able to shake allegations that his government gave huge discounts in land sales to two educational institutions linked to associates of he and his wife, and then tried to cover up the links.
The Finance Ministry last month admitted to altering documents relating to the sale of land in Osaka to a nationalist school with links to Akie Abe, including deleting her name and the prime minister’s name from the papers.
Taro Aso, the finance minister and deputy prime minister, resisted calls to resign over the admission, a move that would have been politically fatal for Abe, analysts said. Abe and his wife have denied all wrongdoing.
Now, the Finance Ministry is in further hot water after allegations — backed up with audio recordings — that its top civil servant had been sexually harassing female journalists on a regular basis.
Junichi Fukuda, vice finance minister, has strongly denied reports by the Shukan Shincho magazine that he made sexually suggestive comments to female reporters during drinking events and has said he will sue for defamation.
The magazine is standing by its reporting and released a recording Monday in which a man, alleged to be Fukuda, says to a female reporter in a restaurant or bar: “Can I touch your breasts?”
Abe’s government has so far deflected calls to fire Fukuda but on Monday the ministry opened an investigation into his conduct.
The ministry has also asked any female reporters with similar experiences with Fukuda to come forward, a call that would have been unimaginable before the “Me Too” movement.
The prime minister can’t even play up his strong ties with Trump since the American president has been publicly attacking Japan over trade and did not grant Japan the exemption to new steel tariffs that was given to other allies.
While signing the tariff order, Trump says that Abe will have “a little smile” on his face when they talk. “And the smile is, ‘I can’t believe we’ve been able to take advantage of the United States for so long.’ So those days are over.”
Abe was “blindsided” by the tariff decision and by the sudden burst of diplomacy with North Korea, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow on Japan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Anxiety has grown in Tokyo over the prime minister’s ‘special relationship’ with Trump,” she said.
Abe had wanted a third term to tend to unfinished business: namely, revising the pacifist constitution for the first time since it was imposed on Japan by its American occupiers after World War II. Abe wants to amend the clause denying Japan a full-fledged military and cast off some of the postwar shackles.
This issue has been contentious in Japan, where many people think seven decades of pacifism has served them well. The steady barrage of missiles from North Korea last year, however, helped Abe make his case for a stronger military.
Now, though, diplomacy is front and center, with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in preparing to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un next week, and Trump planning his own meeting with the North Korean leader in May or June.
|The Washington Post