By William Pesek
Is Japan’s Shinzo Abe done? The roughly 50,000 protestors who turned up outside the parliament building on Saturday are surely gunning for what political wags call “Abexit.”
As a year-long cronyism scandal deepens, even Abe’s mentor, Junichiro Koizumi, thinks Japan may have a new prime minister come September, when Abe’s party elects its leader. “He’s losing public trust,” former Prime Minister Koizumi told reporters of the current one. “Anything he says is taken as making excuses.”
All of this makes Abe’s trip to Florida this week for some Donald Trump facetime a bit ill-timed. A week ago, Abe probably saw flying 7,000 miles away as a respite from domestic controversy. Now, it’s a lost few days –- time he could be in parliament fighting for his political survival. The scandal involves public land sold at an 86% discount to an Osaka school company with ties to Abe’s wife, Akie.
What’s more, traveling to Trump’s lair may be its own scandal in the eyes of many voters. No leader embraced President Trump’s erratic White House more enthusiastically than Abe. But at almost every turn over the last 15 months, Abe was blindsided by policy moves counter to Japan’s interests. Tokyo was completely out of the loop on trade tariffs, currencies, North Korea and, depending on the day, whether Washington abhors or favors the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
That’s left Abe with considerable explaining to do. His initial gamble when he raced to Trump Tower in November 2016 was meant to preserve the Japan-U.S. alliance. On the campaign trail, Trump had often conflated China’s trade tactics with Japan and talked of how Tokyo –- and Seoul — should pay more for U.S. military protection or even develop nuclear weapons.
Abe’s sycophancy is now a liability. He prostrated himself to the “America first” president and got nothing for it.
As such, Abe needs to tread very carefully in Florida Tuesday and Wednesday. Trump’s dueling scandals involving Russia, porn stars and his family businesses make Abe’s woes seem management. Still, Trump is desperate for a win on the global stage. Anything to buttress his dealmaker-in-chief bona fides and change the news cycle.
What, though, is in it for Japan? Among the betrayals Abe had to explain to voters was Trump pulling out of TPP, a cornerstone of Abenomics. The best outcome for Abe would be to return to Tokyo with a newly whole TPP –- restoring the pact back to its 12-nation form. Rejoining TPP would be a win for Trump’s efforts to land a big counterpunch on China’s Xi Jinping.
It’s highly unlikely, though. Trump, remember, has periodically hinted at rejoining the Paris climate accord -– to no avail. Re-embracing TPP also would be a colossal flip-flop for a protectionist White House, one sure to irk Trump’s base.
There’s also a trust issue to consider. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in surely might caution Abe against negotiating in good faith with Trump (he’s pressuring Abe for a bilateral trade deal). Seoul did just that, reopening a Korea-U.S. trade deal in effect since 2012. Korean officials agreed to up import quotas for Detroit’s autos, the U.S. agreed, and now Trump is refusing to say when, or even if, he’ll ultimately sign it.
Yet even a diplomatic coup at Mar-a-Lago is unlikely to change Abe’s fortunes at home. The drip, drip, drip of scandal pushed his approval numbers into the 30s and deeply wounded his deputy prime minister, Taro Aso. Newly leaked documents show the Finance Ministry, which Aso runs, doctored entries surrounding the sweetheart land deal.
When the scandal first blew up a year ago, Abe took a page from pal Trump: deny, deny, deny. As it explodes anew, voters don’t seem in a giving mood. Abe might have more success quelling the public uprising if his five-plus-year economic reform program were gaining greater traction. The wages of average households were largely stagnant as stocks surged, enriching the 1%. And now, thanks to Trump’s bombast, the Nikkei Stock average is in the red.
Abe has 50,000 reasons to worry his days are numbered –- all marching outside the parliament. His trip to Mar-a-Lago might just further trump Abe’s ambition to be Japan’s longest-serving leader.