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How 'atmosphere' can change Japanese public's view on politics: ex-finance minister

Hirohisa Fujii (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s presidential election kicked off on Sept. 17. Japan's health care system is still under great strain, but trends among the LDP's presidential candidates are reported as top-level news on television day after day. Media coverage of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who announced his resignation after reaching a stalemate in his running of the government, has dropped, as if he is already a leader of the past despite still being in office.

    Former Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii, 89, is sounding the alarm over the current situation in which the public tends to feel that the LDP has been reborn.

    Fujii retired from politics following his final job as supreme adviser to the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Regarding the political situation in Japan today, he warns, "What's most frightening in society is the atmosphere. The public is moved by the atmosphere. I'm sure some people might say that the LDP is making a comeback. It's a cunning party."

    Taro Kono (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

    In an Aug. 28 public opinion poll that the Mainichi Shimbun conducted before Prime Minister Suga announced his intention to resign, approval for Suga's Cabinet had dropped to its lowest level, at 26%; approval ratings in the mid-20s are said to be the "danger zone." Experts had all predicted that the LDP would run into great difficulty in the next House of Representatives election set to take place in the fall with the public's dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis so high.

    But the situation changed after Suga announced that he would not be running in the LDP's next presidential race. Now that what the candidates in the LDP leadership race are saying and doing are at the center of the news instead of the state of coronavirus infections, the consensus among politicians and those around them is that the number of seats the LDP will lose in the lower house election will be smaller than had been expected. "The governing party's handling of the coronavirus crisis hasn't changed, but there is this feeling that the LDP has become better. This is the atmosphere (that I'm talking about)," Fujii says.

    "The worst example of what the atmosphere can bring about is war," Fujii, who was born in Tokyo in 1932, says. "Not only did this happen in Nazi Germany, but also in Japan, where the public rushed to become members of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association. That's why the atmosphere is a very dangerous thing."

    Fumio Kishida (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

    Fujii experienced the April 13-14, 1945 firebombing of the northern part of Tokyo by U.S. forces toward the end of the Pacific War. It is said that around 2,400 people died, and some 640,000 people suffered the effects. "All the homes around us had been burned down, and the next day, my mother provided hot meals to our neighbors who had been burned out of their homes and came over to our house. Regardless of whether a country wins or loses a war, the members of the public are all victims. The conviction that there is nothing more important than peace was something I came to have in my childhood," Fujii recalls.

    The most symbolic among previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pet projects was constitutional revision. On May 3, 2017, Abe announced a proposal to incorporate a clause into the Constitution that specified the presence of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). "In postwar history, the SDF has not been permitted involvement with politics. If its presence is written into the Constitution, we will definitely start seeing 'military politicians.' They will have the kind of thinking to protect the state before the people, and bad states at that," Fujii says. For someone who has experienced war, that is the kind of view of the state that conflicts with his own.

    Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform Taro Kono, previous LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, previous Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi and the LDP's Executive Acting Secretary-General Seiko Noda have entered the LDP leadership race. Kono, who first landed a ministerial post during the Abe administration, has emerged in public opinion polls as a favorite to be the next prime minister, but Fujii is critical of the public's choice. "To become a Cabinet member, Kono indulged Abe's view on history." Fujii has a request for all of the four candidates: "How one handles the coronavirus crisis is of course very important, but I would like people who are aspiring to become the leader of a country to present to us their own views of the state and of history."

    Sanae Takaichi (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

    Prime Minister Suga ran into a dead end over his administration's coronavirus response, but that doesn't mean that opposition parties have become a realistic option over the LDP among the public. Following Suga's announcement that he would be resigning, an emergency public opinion poll that was conducted by Kyodo News agency on Sept. 4-5 showed that 46.0% of respondents supported the LDP, 12.3% backed the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), 3.8% were for the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, and 3.6% supported the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). As it stands, even when support rates for opposition parties are added together, it is far from that of the LDP.

    Fujii began his political career as a member of the LDP, left the party in 1993, and took part in the launch of the Japan Renewal Party (JRP). When he retired, he was a lawmaker in what was then the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Of the present state of opposition parties, he says, "Their definitive difference from the LDP is that they don't have anyone who can bring a lot of excitement to public opinion. The people in the CDP are logical, but politics doesn't always move by logic."

    Seiko Noda (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

    But even such opposition parties have scored victories. In the Yokohama mayoral election in August, Takeharu Yamanaka, a candidate that was fielded by the CDP and supported by parties such as the JCP and the Social Democratic Party won by a landslide against the incumbent, and Hachiro Okonogi, who Prime Minister Suga had supported. "As is apparent from the results of the Yokohama mayoral election, if an election is handled well with (cross-party) cooperation, the opposition has a chance (against the LDP)," Fujii says.

    Those in power use the public's atmosphere. There is a danger that the public will be carried away and the atmosphere will change in an instant. But it is also true that that atmosphere is also what is moving society. There is a lot of weight to the words of Fujii, who knows Japan at war and in its postwar period.

    ***

    Hirohisa Fujii was born in Tokyo in 1932. Following positions as a budget examiner and others in the Finance Ministry, Fujii first became a legislator when he won in the 1977 House of Councillors election. He left the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1993, and served as finance minister in the Cabinets of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, Tsutomu Hata and Yukio Hatoyama.

    (Japanese original by Masahiro Kasai, Digital News Center)

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