Shinzo Abe loses trust amid scandal allegations

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is trying to shake off a scandal which has also tainted his wife and one of his most trusted political allies.

This week he appeared before members of parliament in Tokyo to defend himself but protests continue and the Japanese media are full of the story.

However, as a long-serving and shrewd politician, Mr Abe has often escaped from problems in the past. So far, he remains in power – while the people around him are taking some of the blame.

Favouritism

There are several aspects to the current scandal. The first is a paper trail which seems to link the prime minister and his wife to an act of favouritism. The allegation is that Mr Abe’s wife, Akie, arranged the sale of land to an associate at a price that was “too good to be fair,” as Bloomberg Businessweek put it.

Then there are allegations of a cover-up – with somebody deleting Mr Abe’s name and the name of his wife from the official records. The Ministry of Finance says that was the fault of one of its bureaucrats, who has subsequently resigned.

So far, the Finance Minister, Taro Aso, has not quit his job but he did cancel a trip to Buenos Aires to join other finance ministers from the G20 this week.

Right wing agenda

Another concern is that the land deal was with a right-wing group, which has a harsh, nationalist agenda.

The Economist says the land was for a school to be run by Moritomo Gakuen, an educational group whose curriculum includes daily bowing to pictures of the emperor, patriotic chanting and “disdain for China and South Korea.”

That has inflamed Mr Abe’s opponents on the left, who see him as a nationalist and a liability.

Reuters reports that two thousand people protested on the streets outside the prime minister’s office on Friday, calling for Mr Abe and Mr Aso to resign.

Such protests are relatively rare in Japan and are highly effective for keeping the story in the headlines.

Democracy and resignations

One of the unusual characteristics of Japanese politics is that the same political party, the LDP, nearly always wins elections.

So when people feel fed up with the LDP, they tend to criticise its leadership. It is then relatively easy for the press to whip up any small scandal or even sense of discontent into a resignation issue.

In the past, this has led the LDP party to replace its leaders frequently – which explains why Japan often had a new prime minister every year or two.

Mr Abe’s different. He’s been in his job since 2012 and intends to hang on until after the Olympic Games in 2020.

For those outside Japan, it seems curious that a relatively minor scandal threatens such a long-serving and successful leader.

But as the Asahi Shimbun newspaper points out, Mr Abe did say that if there was proof that he or his wife had caused misconduct by the Ministry of Finance, he would quit.

That has left his opponents eager to link him to the suspicious land sale.

It also leaves the press seeking more allegations about this matter, which undermines Mr Abe’s credibility as leader.

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