By Motoko Rich
Published 1:06 pm, Monday, April 16, 2018
Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty Images
TOKYO — Amid tensions over trade and North Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan leaves Tuesday to visit President Trump at his Palm Beach estate. It kicks off a frenzy of diplomacy that has Abe meeting President Xi Jinping in China later this year and possibly even North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as well.
Yet Abe may not stay in power long enough to complete the diplomatic trifecta.
Continuing leaks about a pair of domestic scandals that have dogged Abe for more than a year are starting to damage his political standing, with a swelling number of voices saying he will not fulfill his ambition to be the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
Junichiro Koizumi, one of Abe’s best-known predecessors, told a reporter for the magazine Weekly Asahi that “the situation is getting dangerous” for Abe and questioned whether the prime minister might resign when the current session of parliament ends in June.
Vladimir Putin has condemned North Korea’s recent launch of a ballistic missile over Japan. After his meeting with the Russian President at an economic forum in Vladivostok, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the two leaders agreed Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test posed a severe threat to both regional peace and global nuclear non-proliferation. Putin’s disapproval stopped short of sanctions, however He said “Resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula […] is only possible through political and diplomatic means. First we need to dial down general tensions and then to begin dialogue between all interested parties, as proposed in the Russian-Chinese road map of gradual settlement.” No global consensus China also continues to favour a diplomatic solution. After President Xi stressed the importance of negotations in a call with the US President earlier this week, however, Donald Trump expressed some scepticism about this approach and refused to rule out military action. With very little common ground, global leaders are struggling to agree an approach to an increasingly bellicose Kim Jong-Un. President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk on the phone about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and bilateral ties. pic.twitter.com/HXBr5B47aR— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) September 7, 2017
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in front of parliament calling for Abe to step down, while polls emerged showing that approval ratings for his Cabinet had dropped to 37 percent. One poll put it under 27 percent.
As recently as last October, it appeared Abe had adroitly dodged the scandals, leading the Liberal Democratic Party to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections and establishing the prime minister as the world leader consistently able to manage Trump while also staking out a more independent role for Japan in Asia.
But over the past few weeks, leaks of tampered files and previously missing documents are raising sharper questions about whether Abe helped friends at two educational institutions gain preferential treatment from the government. Abe has insisted he was not involved in either case and has suggested that bureaucrats may have acted independently.
Last month, the Finance Ministry said an internal investigation found that bureaucrats had tampered with official documents related to the sale of public land to an ultraconservative education group, known as Moritomo Gakuen, at a steeply discounted price. Abe’s wife, Akie, served as a onetime honorary principal of a planned elementary school that Moritomo wanted to build on the disputed land.
In one of the most damaging findings, the ministry said officials had scrubbed Akie Abe’s name and alleged remarks encouraging the deal from the documents when they were first submitted to parliament, known in Japan as the Diet. Then this month Mitsuru Ota, a senior official at the Finance Ministry, told parliament that a bureaucrat had urged a lawyer for Moritomo to lie about how much it would cost to remove garbage from the public land in order to justify the sale at a discounted price.
Last week, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported the existence of a memo in a separate scandal showing that Shinzo Abe had talked over a meal to a friend seeking to set up a veterinary school in a special economic zone in southwestern Japan. The memo also suggested that a secretary for Abe had helped the friend set up school.
Motoko Rich is a New York Times writer.
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