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The trouble with Abe's nationalistic aides
Publication Date : 10-04-2014
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration is receiving flak all round - a situation made worse by friends and like- minded people that he has recruited to push his nationalist right-wing agenda.
Of particular note are Seiichi Eto, one of several special advisers to the prime minister, and Koichi Hagiuda. The latter is also a special adviser to Abe but in his capacity as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
These two men have never held Cabinet positions. But they share Abe's nationalistic views, and are said to have the ear of the prime minister.
Abe, 59, even addresses the older Eto, 66, as "aniki", which means "big brother".
Eto and Hagiuda were believed to have talked Abe into praying at the controversial Yasukuni war shrine last year, despite knowing it would create a diplomatic firestorm.
And it was Eto, not some more senior official, that Abe dispatched to Washington last November to seek the United States government's understanding for his Yasukuni visit.
Despite negative feedback from Washington, Abe visited Yasukuni on December 26, drawing an immediate reaction of "disappointment" from the US embassy.
Abe continued to let Eto do the talking.
In February, in a YouTube video rebuking Washington, Eto said: "Why doesn't the US treat its ally Japan better? We are the ones who are disappointed."
The government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, rushed to explain that Eto was only voicing a "personal opinion".
However, with an April state visit by US President Barack Obama in the works, the offending video was quickly removed and Eto was made to retract his remarks.
But he had already done his job of signalling to Abe's right-wing constituency that the Japanese leader couldn't care less what Washington thought.
Last month, Abe vowed to honour the landmark 1993 Kono Statement acknowledging Japan's forcible use of "comfort women" sexual slaves in World War II, including Korean women. This was to persuade Korean President Park Geun Hye to agree to a trilateral summit at The Hague, along with Obama.
But on the weekend before the summit, Hagiuda upset Seoul by declaring that if a review of the "comfort women" issue threw up fresh evidence, the government should consider rewriting the 1993 Statement.
Government spokesman Suga quickly took Hagiuda to task.
But was Hagiuda, like Eto, also speaking the prime minister's mind?
Highly likely, say critics, as Abe had long talked about issuing his own statement in August 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Far from not being able to control his aides, Abe is using them to speak to the country's nationalist fringe when he himself cannot do so for political reasons.
Unlike his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, when he surrounded himself with friends in the Cabinet, this time, Abe has clearly placed people who share his ideology in positions where they are more effective in pushing his agenda.
But they are also proving to be a liability.
Take the case of Katsuto Momii, the new chairman of public broadcaster NHK, which Abe professes no liking for.
Since Momii, Abe's preferred candidate, became chairman of NHK in January, the broadcaster's traditional independence has arguably suffered.
Abe is known to consider NHK too left-wing in its views. In 2001, when he was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, he had tried to get the broadcaster to cancel a documentary on Japan's involvement in the comfort women issue.
Significantly, Momii's first public remarks on assuming office were to cast doubt on Japan's guilt in the comfort women issue.
Accused by opposition lawmakers of being unsuitable for the job of NHK chairman, Momii, a former businessman, continues to be a source of embarrassment for both the broadcaster and Abe.
But Abe's greatest liability has turned out to be former diplomat Ichiro Komatsu.
An international law expert, Komatsu shares Abe's conviction that Japan should be allowed to take part in collective self-defence with other countries, something that is banned under the longstanding interpretation of Japan's Constitution.
To Abe's disgust, all previous directors of the Cabinet Legislative Bureau, which is responsible for vetting state-sponsored legislation, have pooh-poohed the idea of revamping the constitutional interpretation, citing legal arguments.
Headhunted by Abe to head the bureau, Komatsu has the job of convincing Parliament that the current interpretation is no longer valid.
Abe thought he had the matter all sewn up.
But Komatsu inexplicably picked verbal fights with elected lawmakers, both inside and outside Parliament; he gave uncalled-for personal views when asked to take the stand in Parliament; he also shocked Parliament by attempting to reply to a question by reading off the answer from a cellphone.
Opposition lawmakers believe the reason behind Komatsu's irrational behaviour could be his ongoing treatment for cancer. He was hospitalised for a month earlier this year.
But Komatsu has refused to quit his post and Abe does not appear to be actively looking for a replacement either.
Abe is expected to reshuffle his Cabinet after the current parliamentary session adjourns in mid-June. But unlike his previous stint as premier, his biggest headaches this time lie outside the Cabinet.
The faster he brings in fresh people who can push his right- wing agenda with more finesse, the better.
The prime minister could do with more people of the calibre of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, an unassuming politician who represents the voice of reason and who has proven capable at times of restraining the loose cannon that is Abe.