Abe Weathering Minister Graft Claim as Amari Readies Defense

  • Japan economy minister to address allegations later this week
  • Abe support so far unaffected by tabloid report on financing

Support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has so far withstood graft allegations against the chief engineer of his "Abenomics" policies. His ability to ride out the storm before summer elections may hinge on how convincing an explanation Economy Minister Akira Amari offers this week.

Amari is set to hold a press conference Thursday on allegations in the Shukan Bunshun magazine last week that he and his secretary accepted at least 12 million yen ($102,000) in undeclared donations from a construction company. Amari initially said he couldn’t recall details and pledged a public explanation after reviewing the facts.

The accusations have prompted speculation Amari may face pressure to resign, and opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada told parliament Tuesday that Abe also had a "serious" responsibility to provide an explanation.

Abe has buckled under such pressure before. His first stint in office lasted less than a year, ending with his resignation in 2007 after a series of cabinet scandals contributed to a slump in public support. He’s developed resilience since. Returning to power in 2012 -- after six premiers in six years under his Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan -- Abe has had relatively high popularity despite the resignations of three ministers over alleged impropriety.

"It’s the kind of problem that in the first Abe administration would have been lethal and under the DPJ would have been lethal, but they have learned how to deal with it," said Steven Reed, a professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo who is writing a book on political corruption in Japan. "Amari’s response is a textbook correct response."

Amari, 66, Japan’s point man in talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional trade pact, has apologized for the fuss over the allegations and denied breaking the law. He’s also made little comment on the details, saying his memory of events is "fuzzy" and that he’ll have outside experts help verify the facts. Amari’s press conference will come before the parliamentary budget committee -- often used as a venue for the opposition to attack the government -- opens Friday.

Even so, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda said Wednesday the government plans to send Amari to the TPP signing ceremony in New Zealand on Feb. 4, and Kyodo News reported that he’s likely to remain in his position for the time being.

Two polls published Monday found backing for Abe’s cabinet was almost unchanged at just under 50 percent after the allegations were made public, although respondents expressed dissatisfaction over Amari’s reaction. Abe’s support has recovered from unpopular policy steps such as the expansion of the powers of the military last year. Backing for opposition parties languishes in single figures, and there is no obvious candidate ready to replace Abe within the ruling LDP.

Minimizing Impact

"Abe’s support rate has not fallen yet, because nobody knows the truth," said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of politics at Nihon University in Tokyo. "It’s a question of whether Amari can produce a satisfactory explanation," he said, adding that the focus will be on whether the minister himself accepted 500,000 yen in cash during a meeting with a construction company representative, as alleged in the report.

The Yomiuri newspaper, which is generally supportive of the LDP government, wrote in an editorial that Amari must hold himself accountable, saying it’s necessary to minimize the impact of the scandal on parliamentary debate on TPP trade legislation.

Election Impact

Amari had served stints as labor minister and trade minister before being appointed to Abe’s cabinet when he took office for the second time in 2012. Seen as a close ally of Abe, he was given three different titles, as well as responsibility for the key trade pact.

A diagnosis of early-stage cancer of the tongue in December 2013 forced Amari to temporarily transfer some of his duties to his deputy, Yasutoshi Nishimura. Nishimura is among those signaled as a possible successor, as is former Agriculture Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.

While Abe would face difficulty in finding a suitable replacement for Amari, in terms of economic policy experience and standing within the party, the fallout from the scandal is unlikely to weigh on the results of the summer election, unless more explosive allegations emerge, Nihon University’s Iwai said. The magazine may publish further details Wednesday.

"I don’t think there will be much effect," Iwai said, looking ahead to the election. "Something bigger would have to come out. It may sound strange, but it’s 12 million yen. If it was several tens of millions, it would be a big deal involving the police and prosecutors. If not, it could pass as a mistake."

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