Nuclear "indiscretion" causing problems for Abe?

The Yomiuri Shimbun reports today that Nikai Toshiro, head of the LDP’s Diet Strategy Committee (国会対策委員会, kokkai taisaku iinkai, usually abbreviated as 国対, kokutai), publicly cautioned Foreign Minister Aso Taro and LDP Policy Affairs Research Council chief Nakagawa Shoichi to exercise “prudence” in their remarks on Japan’s acquiring nuclear weapons.

The source of this comment is interesting. Mr. Nikai, as head of the LDP’s kokutai, is responsible for managing the LDP’s nemawashi — behind-the-scenes consensus-building — in the Diet, meeting with kokutai heads from other parties to smooth over disputes and formulate compromises. Accordingly, Mr. Nikai is not necessarily a policymaker. As Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis wrote in his The Logic of Japanese Politics: “The role of the kokutai is not to negotiate the substance of policy, but to arrive at understandings about how to advance the parliamentary process. More than policy expertise, a successful kokutai chairman needs to have the ability to arrange political deals” (p. 119, but for an excellent account of how the Japanese political system has changed since the end of the cold war the entire book is highly recommended).

As such, while the Yomiuri reports that Mr. Nikai based his remarks on concerns that “the international community might misinterpret” Messrs. Nakagawa and Aso’s calls for a national debate on whether Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, I believe that given Mr. Nikai’s responsibility for ensuring orderly relations with other parties in the Diet, his comments have greater significance domestically.

The Yomiuri article tacitly confirms my suspicions, because it goes on to discuss how other parties have reacted to these remarks by Prime Minister Abe’s senior advisors. The article notes that opposition parties have called for Mr. Abe to dismiss Mr. Aso (they’re not really in a position to call for the dismissal of Mr. Nakagawa, who is merely a party official), suggesting that opposition pressure may have led Mr. Nikai to call on both officials to exercise restraint. The article quotes Mr. Tagaki Yoshiaki, the Democratic Party of Japan’s kokutai chief, as saying, “The foreign minister’s remarks go against national policy; they should not be ignored.”

Mr. Nikai’s remarks may be directed at Mr. Abe as much as at his impertinent advisors. Mr. Abe has tried to have it both ways, publicly declaring that Japan will not acquire nuclear weapons at this time and proclaiming that his cabinet will not debate the issue, while at the same time doing nothing to stop his advisors from calling for a debate on nuclear weapons. Mr. Nikai seems to be saying that Mr. Abe’s strategy will not be without political consequences — permitting these men to continue calling for a nuclear debate may upset relations with opposition parties (and the Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner), making it more difficult to move his agenda forward in the coming months. Moreover, should this issue continue to fester it could provide an angle from which the DPJ can attack Mr. Abe’s leadership in the run-up to the 2007 Upper House election.

Mr. Nakagawa, meanwhile, continued his quest to mention the need for a nuclear debate in any and every possible setting yesterday in an appearance on Fuji TV. It may just be the case that Japan is not ready to have this debate now, and sooner or later he will have to accept that or else cause not inconsiderable harm to his party and its leader.

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