Most international attention on East Asia today is sharply focused on North Korea's nuclear and missile developments. But this does not mean that we can neglect the significant developments taking place in Japan's domestic political landscape. Since winning the December 2012 elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has maintained a commanding majority in the national Diet, and Abe himself is sometimes called 'all-powerful Abe'.
His is a strongly right-wing administration, backed by organizations of nationalist and reactionary character, such as the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), to which most members of the cabinet and Diet belong. Revision of the 1947 'peace constitution' also remains a vital aspiration of Abe and his government, despite the high hurdles that must be surmounted to achieve this.
Recent events concerning press freedoms appear to point to the media's independence weakening. One of Abe's early acts after his return to power in December 2012 was to make senior appointments to NHK - the public broadcaster - of individuals with far-right political persuasions.
Now it is the Japanese English language press that appears to be under attack, although it is difficult to ascertain the extent of the Abe government's role in this. For many years the leading English newspaper, the Japan Times, maintained a rather unbiased political stance. It was owned by an auto-parts manufacturer called Nifco, whose chairman, Toshiaki Ogasawara, worked to ensure that the paper remained balanced. But Ogasawara's death in November 2016 prompted Nifco to sell this loss-making asset in June 2017 to the News2u Holdings group, which took over full ownership.
Under the new Director and Executive Editor, Hiroyasu Mizuno, the Japan Times is shifting its line to that of clear support for the Abe government. Many believe that Mizuno has close links with the right-wing entrepreneur Yoshito Hori. Signs of this shift include regular columnists Sir Hugh Cortazzi and Jeffrey Kingston - both distinguished Western scholars of Japan - as well as a Jiro Yamaguchi, a leading liberal commentator on Japanese politics, all having their contracts terminated. It appears that the new owners are determined that the Japan Times should align with the Abe government.
These developments have occurred in a period when the 'all-powerful Abe' has been losing popular support. The majority support recorded in public opinion polls has fallen by 10-20 percentage points. This drop reflects two long-running corruption scandals involving educational establishments, one of which - with top-level political support - was teaching far-right nationalist ideas. Another factor in the drop was Tomomi Inada's alleged poor performance as defense minister - the second woman to ever hold that position.
Inada, a close ally of Abe, came under fire in relation to a cover-up of Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping in South Sudan. Women at the top level in Japanese politics are rare and struggle to make an impact. This was also true of Renho, who resigned recently from the leadership of the opposition Democratic Party and was replaced by Seiji Maehara, who is eager to shift the party to the right.
On the other hand, Yuriko Koike, who was Japan's first female defense minister, scored a spectacular victory in the Tokyo prefectural elections as part of her newly formed party, the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First). Koike successfully challenged and won the governorship of Tokyo against Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Her political ideology does not greatly differ from that of the Abe government, but she is believed to harbor ambitions to become Japan's first female prime minister.
In a cabinet reshuffle in August, Taro Kono was appointed foreign minister. This is an interesting appointment, given Kono's propensity to challenge government orthodoxy on issues such as nuclear power stations, of which he is highly critical. In 1956 his grandfather Ichiro Kono, then-minister of agriculture and forestry, took part in negotiations with the Soviet Union to restore diplomatic relations, so improving relations with Russia may well be a priority for him.
There is a sense in Tokyo today that the end game for the Abe government may be approaching.
But its grip on power is far from fatally weakened, and the threat from North Korea may work to reinforce its position. The leading contenders to succeed Abe are former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba - who continues to press for more forward defense policies - and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister and faction leader with relatively moderate policy positions.
An important factor in all this is the revival of factions within the LDP. Yet these factions perform different functions within the party than what they have previously. Up until the 1990s, factions were powerful top-down organizations dependant on the fundraising capacities of powerful leaders, but today their members are more equal and less controllable. While in recent years factionalism has been widely seen as having been replaced by the structures of a monolithic party under a single powerful leader, currently factions are regrouping in anticipation of a leadership struggle. The coming period in Japanese politics might hold some surprises. It might even restore the principle of press freedom as a key democratic principle.
The writer is founding director of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies, University of Oxford
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