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Abe vows to regain public trust after dive in approval ratings

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's office on the evening of June 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday his government will strive to regain public trust after weekend polls showed a plunge in approval for his Cabinet and dissatisfaction with the handling of favoritism claims against him.

    "I must frankly recognize that the way we dealt with this invited public distrust of the government," Abe told a press conference following the conclusion of an ordinary Diet session the previous day.

    While criticizing the way the opposition parties acted during the session, Abe acknowledged that trust in the government was damaged by the time it took for the education ministry to confirm the existence of documents at the center of claims that he swayed a decision on a university project so as to benefit a close friend.

    A nationwide Kyodo News telephone survey conducted Saturday and Sunday showed the Cabinet's approval rating plummeted 10.5 points from May to 44.9 percent. The disapproval rating for the Cabinet was up 8.8 points, at 43.1 percent. In some polls by other Japanese media, disapproval ratings were higher than approval ratings.

    Abe, who is currently Japan's third-longest-serving postwar prime minister, said that though parliament is no longer in session, he will "sincerely fulfill" his "responsibility to explain" the issue if requested by the public.

    At the same time, Abe reiterated the necessity of a controversial "conspiracy" law criminalizing the planning of serious crimes that was enacted Thursday ostensibly as a counterterrorism measure.

    About two-thirds of respondents in the Kyodo News poll disapproved of the unorthodox method employed by the ruling coalition of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito to speed up the passage of the law by bypassing a House of Councillors committee vote.

    "Although we feel (the law) is essential for strengthening international coordination in dealing with terrorism, we're aware that some members of the public remain uneasy and concerned about it," Abe said.

    Abe reiterated that "ordinary people" will not be subject to either punishment or investigation under the law.

    Opponents, including legal experts, have warned that the broad definitions in the law mean it could fuel excessive state surveillance or arbitrary punishment of dissenters.

    The grim polling numbers have heightened speculation that Abe could reshuffle the Cabinet later this year.

    Sources close to the matter have said he is thinking of conducting the reshuffle around September, when LDP leadership posts could also be due for an overhaul as their terms come to an end, but some in the government have called for it to take place earlier.

    Abe said he wants to take time to think about refreshing the Cabinet and LDP leadership, stating it is "necessary to create a robust structure in the party and in the government...to obtain great momentum for all sorts of important policies."

    A source close to the party said Monday that Abe intends to retain Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in the Cabinet, and keep Toshihiro Nikai as LDP secretary general and Masahiko Komura as the party's vice president.

    On a separate controversy that dominated political headlines earlier this year, focusing on the links between Abe, his wife Akie Abe and a nationalist school operator given a massive discount for the purchase of state-owned land in Osaka, the prime minister said the government will "fully cooperate" with ongoing inquiries.

    Abe's press conference came ahead of the start of campaigning on Friday for the July 2 Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

    The Tokyo chapter of the LDP, currently the group with the most seats in the assembly, will be up against a new party helmed by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who gave up her Diet seat to run for governor last year.

    "(The LDP) will aim to appeal to the people of Tokyo with policies that are deeply rooted in the region and close to their hearts, and achieve victory, even if just for one more (of our candidates)," Abe said.

    Abe will need to retain the support of the public and of his own party in order to steer a potential amendment to the Constitution, which has remained unaltered since coming into force in 1947.

    Electoral victories have given the LDP, Komeito and likeminded lawmakers the two-thirds supermajority needed to formally propose an amendment, which will then have to gain a majority in a national referendum.

    Abe said Monday he is not yet ready to reveal the contents of the proposal the LDP will submit to the Diet's constitutional commissions.

    He made clear last month that he aims to bring an amendment into force by 2020 explicitly mentioning the Self-Defense Forces, while retaining the existing clauses of the war-renouncing Article 9 to win over voters concerned about undermining the Constitution's commitment to pacifism.

    In two weeks' time, Abe will take part in the Group of 20 leading nations' summit in Germany, where he is slated to hold talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and new South Korean President Moon Jae In among others.

    He vowed Monday to "ensure a solid scrum" with the United States and South Korea in addressing North Korea, which continues to develop nuclear and ballistic missiles in defiance of international sanctions.

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