Public opinion polls held by various media outlets in recent weeks have shown a drop in the approval ratings for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, likely due in part to the land-sale scandal surrounding the nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
In a nationwide Mainichi Shimbun survey carried out on March 11 and 12, the Cabinet approval rating came out to 50 percent, down 5 percentage points since February. The disapproval rate was 31 percent, marking the first time in six months that the public's support for the Cabinet fell.
Still, there are no signs that the ruling parties are taking this numerical index too seriously -- at least for now. "It's still on the high side," a government source said March 20.
The public's support for the second Abe Cabinet, when it launched in December 2012, stood at 52 percent. High expectations for the administration's economic policies pushed the approval rating up to 70 percent in March 2013. In July 2015, at the height of tumultuous Diet deliberations on security-related legislation, the Cabinet disapproval rating of 51 percent overtook the Cabinet approval rating of 35 percent, but it flipped back again that December. By January of this year, the Abe Cabinet's approval rating had recovered to 55 percent. The Cabinet has seen its approval rating fall to the 30-percent range only four times.
An analysis of the survey results show that the trend toward recovering Cabinet approval ratings up until February of this year was linked to trends in answers given by those who do not support a specific political party.
Support for the Abe Cabinet from independents dropped to 21 percent in September last year. It subsequently rose and resulted in 41-percent support in February this year. This month, however, that approval rating fell by 7 percentage points to 34 percent. Ruling Liberal Democratic Party supporters and independents comprised 32 percent and 41 percent, respectively, of survey respondents in February, and 31 percent and 42 percent, respectively, this month. As the percentage of respective respondents virtually remained the same in those two months, it can be inferred that changing sentiment among independents strongly impacted the overall outcome of the surveys.
Among respondents to the Mainichi Shimbun survey, 84 percent of independents said they were not satisfied with the government's explanation on the massively discounted sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, as opposed to the 75 percent among the general population who felt the same way. Meanwhile, 49 percent of independents said they were against a revised Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds -- a bill promoted by the governed that would allow punishment to be meted out to those judged to have been preparing to commit a crime but haven't -- which is higher than the 41 percent of those who oppose it among respondents in general.
Moritomo Gakuen Chairman Yasunori Kagoike is set to provide sworn witness testimony in the Diet on March 23. Meanwhile, the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds has been criticized for being the same in nature as the so-called "anti-conspiracy bill," which has been scrapped by the Diet three times in the past.
While it's possible that independents' support for the Abe administration will drop even further if the Abe administration makes any gaffes in its handling of the political challenges it now faces, it's too soon to judge whether support for the Abe administration will continue to decline.
Prime Minister Abe's first Cabinet was drained of its strength by a series of resignations by Cabinet ministers. Since the launch of his second Cabinet, however, scandals involving Cabinet ministers have had almost no effect on the Cabinet's approval ratings.
In a survey conducted in November 2014, soon after then Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and then Justice Minister Midori Matsushima both resigned, public support for the Abe Cabinet dropped just 1 percentage point. In a January 2016 survey taken immediately after the resignation of then Economic Revitalization Minister Akira Amari, the Abe Cabinet's approval rating went up 8 percentage points.
Toward the end of the first Abe Cabinet, public support for the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) frequently exceeded that of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
Since the second Abe Cabinet, however, approval ratings for the DPJ and its successor party, the Democratic Party (DP), have hovered in the single digits. In the latest survey, support for the DP was 6 percent, a record low. There's no denying that the unpopularity of the largest opposition party is partly responsible for propping up support for the current Cabinet.