A politically astute Japanese sought to make sense out of the disarray in his homeland before the vote for the upper house of the Diet next Sunday.
"In a word, Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe will lose. The only question is how much," he said. "If the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] loses only a few seats, Abe-San will survive even though his opponents may start maneuvering against him. If the LDP loses a lot of seats, Abe-San's enemies will try to force him to resign."
Abe himself is not standing for re-election and, indeed, the upper House of Councilors must defer to the lower House of Representatives in picking a prime minister.
Even so, the election is widely seen as a referendum on Abe's tenure since he succeeded former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi last September.
About half of the 240 upper house seats are being contested.
The new prime minister started off well, saying he envisioned "a beautiful Japan that is full of vitality, opportunities, and compassion; that values the spirit of self-reliance; and that opens itself to the world, which inspires admiration and respect from the people of the world, so that our children's generation can be confident and proud."
He made shrewd visits to China and South Korea to mend fences with neighbors angry about issues left from World War II.
His initial meeting with US President George W. Bush, in Hanoi during an APEC forum, seemed to go well as did a visit to Washington in April.
He got the Diet to adopt several critical pieces of legislation, including one that calls for teaching values in schools.
Then things unraveled. Three Cabinet ministers have resigned for alleged corruption or for public statements that enraged voters; one minister committed suicide. Records for 50 million social security accounts got lost, with payments to pensioners withheld. And Abe reopened a festering wound by asserting that "comfort women" were not coerced into prostitution to serve soldiers in World War II.
Consequently, Abe's approval rating, which was 70 percent shortly after he took office, has taken a long but bumpy slide to less than 30 percent today.
If Abe is able to ride through the election and rebuild his administration, he will be confronted with at least four issues in foreign policy and national security:
The legacy of World War II, which includes not only the question of "comfort women," but hatred lingering from atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking in China and 35 years of harsh rule in Korea. Until Japan can put all of those issues behind it, what a US academic calls "the demons of history" will continue to haunt Japan and preclude it from the status Abe envisions.
Revision of the Constitution that was written largely by the US during the occupation of Japan after World War II, particularly Article Nine saying that, in Japan, armed forces "will never be maintained." The US has long been urging Japan to take on more of the security burden in Asia and to rely less on the US for defense.
Attaining the right of collective self-defense so that Japan's forces could undertake joint combat operations with the US and perhaps other allies and to provide for their own security on peacekeeping operations such as those Japan has conducted in Iraq. This is a legal and political rather than a constitutional issue.
Deciding whether to acquire nuclear weapons, a topic over which deliberations in Japan continue despite US reassurances that Japan remains under its nuclear umbrella. A third of the LDP candidates for election favor a debate on this issue, according to a Mainichi Shimbun poll.
A nuclear-armed Japan would be highly disruptive to stability in Asia, to say the least.
The newest element on Japan's security scene is the Defense Minister, Yuriko Koike, who has just been promoted to that post from being the national security adviser to the prime minister. She is the first woman in Japan to hold that office and is thought to be politically ambitious, having joined four other political parties before entering the LDP.
Koike, a member of the lower house, is a former TV news commentator and speaks English and Arabic, having studied in Cairo. She is said to be aiming at becoming the first woman to hold the prime minister's office.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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