Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > July 28, 2007 > Japanese Defence Chief’s Gaffe may Prove Costly for Abe

Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

Japanese Defence Chief’s Gaffe may Prove Costly for Abe

Sunday 29 July 2007, by Rajaram Panda

The nuclear issue is too sensitive for Japan and understandably so. Japan is the only country in history to have experienced the atom bomb when the United States dropped the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, thereby bringing the World War II to an end. However, a fact of history as it may be, the Japanese people could never justify the US action. No wonder when Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma said early this month in a speech at a University in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, that the dropping of the atomic bombs by the US in the closing days of World War II “could not be helped”, as it was aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from entering the war against Japan, it stirred furious criticism in a nation where many consider the attacks an unjustified slaughter of civilians. Though Kyuma, a native of Nagasaki himself, took pains to explain that he did not mean to condone the 1945 bombings, which Washington has argued were necessary to end World War II without a potentially bloody land invasion, he was left with no alternative than to tender his resignation from the Cabinet.

The remarks may become another headache for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has been already gripped by the pension fiasco and other scandals, ahead of the July 29 House of Councillor election. Indeed, it is rare for Cabinet Ministers in the only nation to suffer an atomic bombing to make such remarks. Kyuma said the US “dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki even though it knew Japan would lose the war”. He said the US must have thought the use of an atomic bomb would prompt Japan’s surrender, thus preventing the Soviet Union from declaring war against Japan. Considering international circumstances and occupied Japan’s situation after the war, “one should bear in mind that such a thing (bombing) could be an option”, he said. Kyuma said that had the bombs not been dropped, Japan would have kept fighting and ended up losing a greater part of its northern territory to the Soviet Union, which invaded Manchurtia on the day Nagasaki was bombed.

On August 6, 1945, the US dropped the bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, killing at least 140,000 people in the world’s first atomic bomb attack. Three days later, it dropped another atomic bomb, “Fat Man”, on Nagasaki, killing 74,000 people. Kyuma has a record of upsetting Washington with a string of comments after assuming his post last September. Kyuma became Japan’s first Defence Minister when the Defence Agency was upgraded to a Ministry in January. The same month, he raised eyebrows in Washington by calling the US decision to invade Iraq a “mistake” because it was based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. He also criticised the US over its handling of a plan to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa. Japan and the US are close military allies, and Japan hosts some 50,000 American troops under a security treaty. This time he angered the victims of atomic bombs.

No sooner Kyuma made his views known, Nobuo Miyake, 78, the Director General of a group of victims living in Tokyo, came out with his scathing criticism thus: “the US justifies the bombing saying they saved many American lives” and “it is outrageous for a Japanese politician to voice such thinking. Japan is a victim.” The victims felt that Kyuma ignored the fact that many A-bomb survivors are still suffering even today. Indeed, bomb survivors have developed various illnesses from radiation exposure, including cancer and liver diseases.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue observed by saying that “the use of nuclear weapons constitute the indiscriminate massacre of ordinary citizens, and it cannot be justified for any reason”. Speaking in the city of Nagasaki, Nobel Prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe said Kyuma’s remarks are “meaningless and criminal”, adding that a lawmaker must be critical of nuclear weapons, the largest burden borne by human beings, if he or she seriously seeks peace in the future.

In the US, the bombings are widely seen as a weapon of last resort against an enemy that was determined to fight to the death but instead surrendered unconditionally six days after Nagasaki was attacked. Critics, including many Japanese and also some Americans, believe President Harry Truman’s government had other motives: a wish to test a terrifying weapon, the desire to defeat Japan before the Soviet Union arrived, and the need to strengthen Washington’s hand against Moscow in what would become the Cold War.

A ban on possession of such weapons is a hallowed tenet of Japan’s post-war pacifist policies. And Kyuma’s remarks were slammed as both a tacit acceptance of the US decision in 1945 and of the use of nuclear weapons in general. Indeed, since Abe assumed office last September, controversies over World War II have become front-and-centre issues. Abe himself was the focus of international ire for denying that Japan forced “comfort women” to work at front-line brothels during the war, despite historical evidence to the contrary. And a large faction within Abe’s party is rallying for a re-evaluation of the Rape of Nanking, in which the Chinese claim as many as 300,000 people were slaughtered. The atomic bombings are an even more delicate matter.

OPINION polls over the past few days have shown Abe’s approval ratings dipping to record lows in the wake of the government’s pension record-keeping debacle, a Cabinet Minister’s suicide and other scandals, including the defence chief’s latest gaffe. Media forecasts predict that the ruling camp, burdened by Abe’s falling popularity, will have a tough time retaining its majority in the Upper House.

Kyuma is the second Minister to resign from Abe’s Cabinet since its formation in September 2006. Genichiro Sata quit as Minister in charge of Administrative Reforms over an accounting scandal in December 2006. In late May 2007, Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide after being grilled over the questionable accounting of one of his political funding groups and a bid-rigging scandal threatened to envelop him.

Kyuma’s gaffe is surely to hurt Abe’s bid to woo voters. Beset by voter anger over the pension fiasco and the political funds scandals of various Cabinet Ministers, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, responded by extending the Diet session to ram through a series of key bills. These bills reforming the pension system, the public servant system and the management of lawmakers’ funds would have improved public support for Abe were it not for the flap over Kyuma’s gaffe.

Kyuma’s resignation will surely have far-reaching repercussions for the upcoming House of Councillors election on July 29. Before Kyuma’s remarks, the campaign for the Upper House election was poised to focus on the Social Insurance Agency’s bungled maintenance of premium payment records. However, the Kyuma issue will certainly have a major bearing on the election campaign. The result of the election will rest on whether public discontent with the government and ruling camp abates before the polling day on July 29 or whether this disgruntlement will snowball.

Kyuma’s resignation is akin to the lead-up to the 1989 Upper House election in which the LDP suffered a crushing defeat, gaining only 36 Upper House seats, 10 fewer than the then Japan Socialist Party. The current political situation has shades of the 1989 contest, when a spate of scandals hamstrung the LDP’s attempts at damage control with regard to voter outrage. The 1989 Upper House race was fought with the problem of “money and politics”, especially the Recruit scandal, as the largest campaign issue.

In the scandal, many LDP members of the Diet accepted prefloatation shares in Recruit Cosmos Co., a real estate subsidiary of the Recruit business group, knowing that the share price would skyrocket when they were listed. The LDP lawmakers were brought to task for making easy money for giving favours to help Recruit expand its business. Before the 1989 election, law-enforcement authorities declared the investigation into the Recruit scandal had been completed. Many in the LDP were lulled into a false sense of security and believed the scandal would barely affect the party’s performance in the election. Public anger, however, had already been stoked by the introduction that year of the consumption tax as well as a sex scandal involving the then Prime Minister, Sosuke Uno. The result was that criticism of the LDP snowballed.

A Cabinet member on the stump for a candidate in the Upper House race on the LDP ticket made matters worse after the sex scandal broke, saying to the effect that women should be deemed “unfit for handling political affairs”. The gaffe infuriated women voters already fed up with Uno’s sex scandal. The scandal saw the popularity of the JSP Chairwoman, Takako Doi, soar, while what was dubbed a “Madonna boom” saw a string of female candidates elected in the Upper House poll. The LDP’s stinging election defeat resulted in Uno falling on his sword as the Prime Minister.

Hours after Kyuma stepped down, Abe appointed Yuriko Koike, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security Affairs, as the new Defence Minister. Abe presumably hopes appointing Koike, who is known as an expert in security affairs, will take some of the wind out of Kyuma’s critical sails. Yet, the Democratic Party of Japan and other Opposition parties are set to get plenty of political mileage out of this scandal by not only blaming the Prime Minister for appointing Kyuma, but also castigating the whole Abe Cabinet. The pension records mess and Kyuma’s remarks look set to be the two largest campaign issues in the Upper House contest, with public criticism of the LDP likely to intensify in the days ahead. As it appears, Abe’s political fortune will be determined by the outcome of the July 29 election results and the portents seem to be not that favourable.

Dr Rajaram Panda, a specialist on Japanese affairs, works as the Chief Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation, New Delhi Office. The views expressed here are his personal.

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