The nuclear debate "fallout" continues to spread

Quite a bit has happened in the intervening days since Mr. Nikai called for restraint. As I expected, it seems that the “loose lips” of Mr. Aso and Mr. Nakagawa have led to greater outrage from other parties and more calls for prudence from LDP senior officials.

First, as this article in the Asahi Shimbun reports, the New Komeito Party, the LDP’s coalition partner, has publicly aired its misgivings about calls for a debate about nuclear weapons. New Komeito, the political party founded by the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, is strongly opposed to nuclear weapons (and I should add, aggressive military force in general — see its policy aims here [link in English]).

Accordingly, Asahi reports, Sasagawa Takashi, responsible for maintaining LDP party discipline, advised at a liaison group meeting of senior LDP officials that the party must “hasten to extinguish the fire” and ease the concerns of the New Komeito. LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao echoed Mr. Sasagawa, insisting that this issue will not be discussed by the party, and that, even if the LDP and the Abe Cabinet were to consider revising Japan’s three non-nuclear principles, which prohibit Japan from producing, possessing, or permitting the stationing of nuclear weapons on its soil, it would have considerable difficulties in doing so, not least because of fears that doing so would undermine American support.

And what did Abe have to say? “The government’s policy is already decided. There will be absolutely no changes.”

Will this sustained assault by nearly all of the LDP’s heavyweights silence Mr. Nakagawa (Mr. Aso has apparently decided not to mention nuclear weapons anymore)?

If not, perhaps the DPJ — together with New Komeito — will raise the pressure, resulting in the LDP’s forcing its wayward leaders out. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the DPJ is doing just that; Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, in fact, said in a speech in Tokyo on Monday, “If Prime Minister Abe cannot dismiss Mr. Aso, then we will introduce a non-confidence motion against Mr. Aso.” Mr. Nakagawa, the LDP secretary-general, replied by pointing out Mr. Hatoyama’s hypocrisy, considering that Mr. Hatoyama is on record of having voiced his support in 1999 for a debate on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Nakagawa’s reply may be effective at pointing out the DPJ’s difficult political position (discussed here) but it doesn’t change the fact that by not squelching this issue early, Mr. Abe may have stumbled into the first serious political crisis of his tenure. If the LDP’s executives had come out immediately to denounce their colleagues for their indiscretions and reaffirm the LDP’s and the government’s commitment to the three non-nuclear principles, this incident might have reinforced the impression formed by his early trips to China and South Korea that Mr. Abe is in fact quite moderate and not eager to introduce radical revisions to Japan’s security policy. By waiting to respond, however, Mr. Abe has tarnished his reputation, undermined the LDP’s relationship with its coalition partner, given a gift to the opposition, and exposed cracks in the LDP.

If anything, the LDP’s cracks may continue to grow, as the creation by former LDP secretary-general Kato Koichi of an LDP study group on Japanese foreign and security policy vis-a-vis Asia — characterized as an “anti-Abe” study group by the Japan Times — indicates. This issue, together with the nuclear weapons issue and the question of whether the LDP should readmit members ousted for their opposition to postal reform, shows that not only is the LDP riven with policy differences — as a party geared to securing power instead of promoting an ideology, it’s always been home to a variety of policy positions — but the mechanisms it has used to manage disagreements have broken down. This is not a new development, but because Prime Minister Koizumi had a relatively clear sense of what he wanted to do and little fear of going after opponents within the LDP, the differences were less visible.

Mr. Koizumi, in fact, was the epitome of what Mr. Abe calls in the introduction to his 「美しい国へ」 (Toward a Beautiful Country) a “戦う政治家” (fighting politician) — which Mr. Abe defines as 「批判を恐れず行動する政治家」, “a politician who acts without fear of criticism” (my translation).
Mr. Abe, however, has yet to show whether he has the same quality.

In the coming weeks, as the special session of the Diet draws to a close, expect Mr. Abe to go on the offensive in policy terms, to establish his reputation as a reformer and draw attention away from the nuclear question. He will likely begin with a serious push to pass the reform of the Fundamental Law on Education. Should he fail to recover from this first political blow to his cabinet, his tenure may well be short-lived.

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