An opposition lawmaker took the helm of the upper house of parliament for the first time in half a century yesterday after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party was crushed at the polls last month.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan almost non-stop since 1955, lost control of the upper house as voters punished the LDP following a string of scandals.
The LDP maintained its majority in the more powerful lower house, which was not at stake in the July 29 vote, but the center-left opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) yesterday elected Satsuki Eda as the new speaker of the upper chamber.
"The composition of the upper house has changed dramatically. We are facing a political situation that we have never experienced before," Eda said in his first address as speaker.
"I promise to give my all with all the staff of this chamber so that it will function and carry out its mission to respond to the hopes of the people," he said.
The new parliament is expected to see intense debate on Abe's plans to extend Japan's military logistical mission to help US-led forces in Afghanistan.
Officially pacifist Japan approved the mission through special laws passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to allow participation in the US-led "war on terror."
The Democratic Party has opposed extending the mission, which will expire on Nov. 1. But Abe's coalition has a strong enough majority in the lower house to override the upper chamber.
Abe, Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, came to office in September last year with an unabashedly conservative agenda, including rewriting the US-imposed pacifist Constitution.
He has vowed to stay as prime minister, insisting that voters were not opposed to his core ideas but instead upset over scandals including massive mismanagement of the rapidly ageing country's pension system.
In a potential fresh scandal for the Cabinet, Justice Minister Jinen Nagase admitted receiving a donation worth US$4,200, which he has since returned.
The donation came from a group that was having trouble procuring visas for two Chinese under a guest-worker program and was making inquiries to the justice ministry, which handles immigration.
Nagase said there was no wrongdoing and that the donation, first reported by the Mainichi Shimbun, came before he was justice minister.
"I returned the money because I became the justice minister and did not want to have an appearance of inappropriate conduct," he said.
But opinion polls have shown that Abe's support rate has kept tumbling, raising doubts within the ruling party.
The Yomiuri Shimbun said yesterday that support for Abe's Cabinet has fallen to 27.2 percent, the first time it has slipped below 30 percent in surveys by the best-selling daily.
"Abe has vowed to remain in office, but 54 percent of respondents did not think he would be able to turn things around. Just 18 percent believed he could redeem himself," the Yomiuri said.
The face-to-face interview survey was conducted on Saturday and Sunday with 3,000 eligible voters at 250 locations.