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PM Abe evades responsibility over political scandals despite 'painfully aware' comments

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen apologizing in response to the indictment of former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife and House of Councillors member Anri at the prime minister's office on July 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- When former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife and House of Councillors member Anri were arrested and indicted, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once again turned to his go-to phrase, "I am painfully aware of my responsibility," for appointing the legislator to a key Cabinet post. The Mainichi Shimbun examined the tactics and emptiness of Abe's political rhetoric by interviewing experts on postwar politics in Japan.

There is this episode from when the prime minister was a school boy which might help one understand the foundation of his rhetoric; As Shinzo's father Shintaro, former secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who died in 1991, was very busy with work and his mother Yoko, 92, was often in her husband's home prefecture of Yamaguchi in western Japan, it was Shinzo's nanny Ume Kubo who looked after him as a young boy.

Journalist Tadaoki Nogami, 79, reflected, "I heard that Ms. Ume passed away a few years ago, but she said something like this during an interview with me. It was when Abe was in the lower grades of elementary school. As the end of summer break was nearing, Ms. Ume would ask him, 'Shin-chan, have you done your homework?' Then, each time, Shinzo as a young boy would answer nonchalantly, 'Yup, it's done.' But, when Ms. Ume checked his summer homework to keep a diary with picture entries and other assignments, the pages were left blank. Ms. Ume had no choice but to do his homework for him, while purposefully holding a pencil in her left hand (to make out he had written it)."

Nogami has reported on Tokyo's Nagatacho district, Japan's political nerve center, since 1972 as a political news reporter for major news agency Kyodo News. He served as a long-term reporter assigned to closely follow Shintaro Abe. The journalist has honed in on the character of the prime minister in publications such as "Abe Shinzo: Chinmoku no Kamen (the mask of silence)" (2015) based on interviews with Kubo and others including the young Abe himself.

"Every time a scandal overrides the administration, the prime minister says casually, 'I am painfully aware of my responsibility.' For me, this image overlaps with the earlier image of Shinzo as a young boy lying nonchalantly that he had done his homework, like this is the starting point..." remarked Nogami.

Regardless of whether he is lying or not, we have indeed been made to listen to the words, "I am painfully aware of my responsibility," countless times. To give recent examples, Abe used this phrase following the indictment of former Justice Minister Kawai and his wife in an informal interview surrounded by reporters on July 8; at a press conference on June 18 after being questioned on his responsibility for appointing the arrested former justice minister, as well as when asked about the issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals, on which little progress has been made while Shigeru Yokota, father of an abductee, and others have passed away; at a press conference on May 4 regarding an extension of the state of emergency that was originally scheduled to be in place until May 6; in a lower house plenary session on April 2 after being questioned about his views on the altering of documents relating to the discounted sale of state land in Osaka Prefecture to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen; and in an upper house plenary session on Jan. 29, 2019, after being questioned on his views regarding a series of scandals associated with a labor survey and other government statistics. The prime minister has used this phrase in various settings, regardless of the subject of his apology.

Abe has voiced the phrase, "painfully aware," referring to his accountability a total of 101 times merely in Diet sessions between the 2012 launch of the second Abe Cabinet and June 4 of this year.

What is disconcerting is that even though a top-ranking official of the judicial administration in Japan had been suspected of illicit activity, neither the very person behind the scandal nor the prime minister, who is the appointer as well as the head of his political party, hardly gave an explanation to the Japanese public on the background of facts regarding the issue to date. One can even sense an air of indifference in the party's attitude of having the Kawais submit a notice of resignation from the LDP on June 17, the day before their arrest, and subsequently acting as if it is not their problem anymore.

Nogami stated, "If the prime minister claims to be 'painfully aware' of his responsibility, he should have at least instructed the Kawais to provide an explanation to the public on the background of events, but there hasn't even been a trace of such actions. It is all too natural for there to be criticism that he is 'all talk and no action.' He must have intended to put an end to the scandal after getting rid of the Kawais."

The case of the resignation of Hiromu Kurokawa, former chief of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office, is also reminiscent of the previous example. To keep the prosecutor in his post, the Abe Cabinet went as far as extending the tenure of a public prosecutor for the first time in history when he reached retirement age, claiming that Kurokawa's retirement "would cause a massive hindrance to the continual execution of tasks." (Justice Minister Masako Mori in a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Feb. 25). Despite this effort, the Abe Cabinet readily accepted Kurokawa's resignation letter when the mahjong gambling scandal surfaced. Abe also shelved a bill to revise the Public Prosecutor's Office Act to allow the Cabinet to extend senior prosecutors' retirement age. This also gives off the impression of Abe discarding those who are no longer important to him and sweeping scandals under the rug.

Seiichiro Murakami, former minister in charge of administrative reform who had been the only figure in the LDP to openly criticize Prime Minister Abe, had previously commented, "He appoints to the Cabinet mostly close aides, friends, and second-generation or third-generation legislators like himself. The same problem keeps being repeated because when an issue arises, he has his mind only on having those involved resign to draw a curtain on the affair."

Political commentator Minoru Morita, 87, expressed harsh views and commented, "He is not the type of person who thinks that he made an error in appointing Cabinet ministers, or feels responsibility. After all, he has not once taken responsibility while saying he would do so."

(Japanese original by Riki Yoshii, Integrated Digital News Center)

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