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Japan parliament reopens with Abe's job on the line

September 11, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — There was barely a mention of his signature slogan to make Japan a "beautiful country," little sign of the grand ambitions for rewriting Japan's pacifist constitution that heralded his arrival in office a year ago.

A chastened Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened a new, sure-to-be-raucous session of parliament Monday with a vow to stick to the governing basics, the day-to-day business that voters told him to focus on when his governing Liberal Democratic Party was trounced in partial elections for Japan's upper house in July.

Though he offered no concrete plans or new ideas, Abe made sure to hit the electorate's talking points: economic reform, alleviating growing social disparities and restoring the public's faith in politics -- the latter an ambitious order of its own given the LDP's scandal-plagued record under his watch.

The something-for-everyone speech was his stab at proving he is not "KY," short for kuuki (air) and yomenai (can't read), a Japanese youth expression for someone clueless about what's going on.

Yet Abe also tried his hand at the confrontational strategy so ably exploited by his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Two years ago, Koizumi turned an opaque battle over reforming the post office into a defining showdown of high theater by staking his political career on getting his way. Struggling to alter his image as a weak leader, Abe has now declared that he, too, must be get his way or he'll quit.

Abe's "High Noon" moment comes over the imminent need to renew the law that clears the way for pacifist Japan to participate in U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan. The Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and allowed Japan's navy, known in deference to the pacifist constitution as the Maritime Self-Defense Force, to handle some of the sophisticated refueling operations for coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean.

The latest version of that law expires Nov. 1, and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which now controls the upper house, has promised to block its renewal. DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa argues that Japan can participate only in U.N.-sponsored operations and contends that Japanese ships are supporting an "American" war.

Many here believe that Ozawa is merely playing politics with the law, seeing its potential defeat as the trigger that could bring Abe's government down. But he is also tapping into a wider suspicion here that the commitment is dragging Japan into long-term entanglements it never sought.

American attempts to lean on Ozawa by underscoring Japan's importance as a staunch ally have only backfired, allowing the opposition leader to appear to be standing tall against the Bush administration, while Abe seeks only to please.

"We must fight resolutely, but the manner and methods used in this fight are different for each nation," Ozawa told U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer during a meeting in August that was widely reported in the Japanese media.

Abe has, in turn, tried to portray the law's renewal as a matter of honoring Japan's international commitments, not one of catering to American demands.

"The Self-Defense Force members who carry out their tasks dutifully under the scorching heat in the Indian Ocean, that is the kind of international contribution the world is anticipating from Japan," Abe said in Monday's speech.

He reminded parliament that Japanese nationals were among those killed in the World Trade Center attacks, and asked: "Is it really all right to pull out now and abandon our international responsibility?"

It remains a tall order for Abe to show the political bravado of a Koizumi. Even his threat to resign was couched in noncommittal language: Abe introduced the prospect during a news conference as he left the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney on Sunday, saying "I would not cling to my job."

When pressed by reporters Monday if he truly meant to quit should the anti-terrorism law be rejected, the prime minister responded enigmatically, "I believe that's how the respective media organizations understood it."

Senior members of the LDP are downplaying the significance of Abe's threat, probably worried that he might choose to take his Cabinet down with him by dissolving parliament and calling an election.

There is already chatter among party elders such as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of forming a grand coalition with the DPJ to retain at least some grip on power.

The test will be whether Abe can finesse his way through the coming showdown with Ozawa. Even if the opposition defeats the bill in the upper house, Abe can resort to heavy-handed parliamentary tactics to ram the law into force, though the political cost could be high.

Yet there is also a suspicion that Abe may have simply found himself an issue of principle to fall on, a way for a politician who frittered away the high hopes that arrived with him a year ago to find an honorable exit.


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