Ja­panese leader gets a sur­prise life­line from North Korea

Waterloo Region Record - - EDITORIALS & COMMENT - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is in Tokyo as the guest of the For­eign Press Cen­ter Ja­pan, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion with links to the Ja­panese govern­ment. His opin­ions are his own.

TOKYO — The North Korean cri­sis has thrown Ja­pan’s be­lea­guered Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe a life­line. But it is a slip­pery one.

Just three months ago, Abe was in the po­lit­i­cal dol­drums. A se­ries of scan­dals, in­clud­ing one in­volv­ing a dodgy land sale, dogged him. His at­tempts to re­sus­ci­tate Ja­pan’s mori­bund econ­omy had failed. Polling showed his pop­u­lar­ity col­laps­ing.

Mean­while, his ri­vals within the rul­ing Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party smelled blood. Abe’s three­year term as head of the LDP is due to ex­pire next year. It seemed in­creas­ingly un­likely he could win an­other one. A loss there would cost him the prime min­is­ter­ship.

The Abe pe­riod seemed to be drawing to a close.

And then the rocket man stepped in.

“Rocket Man” is Don­ald Trump’s pe­jo­ra­tive term for North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un. But in the Ja­panese con­text it seems apt. Kim’s nu­clear tests have alarmed the world. But his de­ci­sion to lob two un­armed rock­ets over Ja­pan par­tic­u­larly alarmed the Ja­panese.

Trump says he’ll han­dle ‘Lit­tle Rocket Man,’ Kim Jong-Un, say­ing the North Korean leader may be crazy. Air raid sirens sounded. Peo­ple were warned to stay in­side. And Abe’s sag­ging pop­u­lar­ity be­gan to rise.

The prime min­is­ter is a con­ser­va­tive and a hawk. He wants to amend that por­tion of Ja­pan’s con­sti­tu­tion — im­posed by the vic­to­ri­ous Amer­i­cans in 1945 — that re­quires the coun­try to for­ever re­nounce war.

This is a touchy sub­ject in a coun­try that still bears the scars of the world’s first, and so far only, nu­clear at­tacks. Ja­pan does have a so­phis­ti­cated mil­i­tary ma­chine — called the Self De­fence Forces. But its use is con­strained by law.

Abe wants to re­lax those con­straints. He talks tough against North Korea and en­cour­ages Amer­ica’s Trump to do the same.

Iron­i­cally, North Korea’s Kim is giv­ing him a hand.

This week, Abe took ad­van­tage of his ris­ing poll num­bers to call a snap elec­tion for Oct. 22 — a year early.

If the polls are right, he will win hand­ily. The only real op­po­si­tion he faces is from Tokyo Gov­er­nor Yuriko Koike, a fel­low con­ser­va­tive and for­mer LDP min­is­ter, who just this week formed her own Party of Hope.

Like Abe, Koike is a hawk who would amend the con­sti­tu­tion’s ban on ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary ac­tion.

But she is a charis­matic fig­ure who last year won the Tokyo gov­er­nor­ship against all odds. Like Em­manuel Macron in France, she cre­ated her own party and swept Tokyo assem­bly elec­tions.

Her hope seems to be to do the same thing but on a na­tional scale.

Koike’s plat­form, such as it is, is a mix­ture of con­ser­va­tive and re­form poli­cies — hawk­ish on se­cu­rity but more rad­i­cal (for Ja­pan) in day-to-day ar­eas.

It would, for in­stance, fully le­gal­ize the right of women to keep their birth sur­names af­ter mar­riage and would leg­is­late against sec­ond-hand smoke.

Koike is also one of the few na­tional con­ser­va­tive politi­cians to ques­tion the use of nu­clear power — a po­si­tion that, in light of the 2011 Fukushima re­ac­tor melt­down, should have some res­o­nance with vot­ers.

Can she win? Even she seems to think the odds are against her, an­nounc­ing Wed­nes­day that she won’t give up her Tokyo gov­er­nor­ship to seek a seat in Ja­pan’s Diet, or par­lia­ment.

But Ja­panese vot­ers have turned against the LDP es­tab­lish­ment be­fore. They could do so again.

The real risk for Abe, how­ever, is not that he will lose out­right but that he will emerge from this elec­tion with a re­duced ma­jor­ity. Among other things, this could limit his abil­ity to change the con­sti­tu­tion. It would also call into ques­tion his po­lit­i­cal judg­ment — which would en­cour­age his LDP ri­vals to re­sume sharp­en­ing their knives.

So, yes. North Korea’s Kim has in­ad­ver­tently thrown the Ja­panese prime min­is­ter a life­line of sorts. But it is a frayed one that could give way.

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