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 three-year 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.
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 also a charismatic figure who last year won the Tokyo governorship against all odds. She then, like Emmanuel Macron in France, created her own party and swept the 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.
Thomas Walkom is in Tokyo as the guest of the Foreign Press Center Japan, a non-profit organization with links to the Japanese government. His opinions are his own. Mr. Walkom is a national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star. This column was released on Sept. 29.
The Hill Times