TOKYO — If you think President Trump has had a rocky week, spare a thought for Shinzo Abe.
The Japanese prime minister lost both his defense minister and his army chief Thursday, when they signaled they would quit for having taken part in an alleged coverup of Japan’s peacekeeping activities in South Sudan.
This came just days after Abe finally relented and agreed to be questioned in parliament over cronyism allegations that he just can’t shake, only to have to return the following day and correct his initial testimony. Plus, his party just lost another local election. Oh, and his latest poll numbers are down some 30 points.
Abe is now regularly recording support levels in the 20 percent range — even lower than those of the American president — sparking talk of a second ignominious exit from politics, a decade after his first abrupt departure as prime minister.
“Up until now, Abe was the Teflon prime minister,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo. “But now he’s almost in the zone of no return. He needs a miracle.”
All of this was unthinkable at the beginning of the year. Abe’s approval ratings were hovering around 60 percent, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) changed its term limit to allow Abe to serve a third term as leader.
With no opposition to speak of, either inside or outside his party, it was widely assumed that Abe, elected at the end of 2012, could remain prime minister until 2021.
But he started having troubles in February, amid suggestions that his and his wife’s support for a right-wing kindergarten in Osaka — one that had been sending out notes about “wicked” Koreans and Chinese — helped secure a sweetheart land deal for the educational company that ran the school. The former head of the scandal-plagued school operator and his wife were both summoned for questioning Thursday on suspicion of defrauding the government.
Still, Abe seemed to have shaken off those allegations, until another scandal involving a school emerged. This time, he was accused to helping to win approval for a close friend to open a veterinary school in a designated “national strategic special zone.”
Coming so soon on the heels of the first set of accusations, and again involving allegations of influence peddling, this scandal is not sliding off Abe.
Appearing at a special session of an upper house committee Monday, the prime minister said that he did not know at first that his friend’s educational institution would be the operator of the new veterinary school. But after Renho Murata, leader of the main opposition party, noted discrepancies in his testimony, Abe had to return the following day and apologize for causing confusion with conflicting statements.
In another surprising twist on an unusually high-drama day in Japanese politics, Renho also resigned as the leader of the Democratic Party Thursday. She had been plagued about her dual nationality — her father was Taiwanese — but she faced no internal challenge, and analysts were puzzled about why she stepped down at a time when Abe is struggling.
Tomomi Inada, the defense minister, apparently decided to quit before being fired in a cabinet reshuffle set for next week.
Inada had committed a string of gaffes — the latest being her exhortation to voters, “on behalf of the Self-Defense Forces,” as the Japanese military is known, to support the LDP in local elections, a statement that was seen as breaching the military’s political neutrality.
No sooner had this passed than Inada was in hot water again, this time accused of covering up records of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ controversial peacekeeping activities in South Sudan last year, when the security situation there was rapidly worsening.
The head of the ground self-defense forces, or army, and the Defense Ministry’s top bureaucrats also signaled that they would step down.
They were taking the blame for a scandal surrounding logs kept by Self-Defense Forces members who went to South Sudan. The peacekeeping mission was Japan’s first under new security legislation as Abe tries to inch the country back to a more normal military footing.
The logs, which the ministry said had been lost, were thought to have described the dangers the peacekeepers faced — potentially complicating Abe’s efforts to cast off the postwar “shackles” that the United States imposed on Japan at the end of World War II.
Amid all this, the LDP has lost two elections. First, and most embarrassingly, it suffered a huge defeat to one of Abe’s rivals in Tokyo assembly elections earlier this month. Then, just this week, the LDP lost a parliamentary seat in Sendai to an opposition-backed independent.
The next test for Abe’s party comes Sunday, with mayoral elections to be held in Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city.
“Compared to Trump, Abe doesn’t look that erratic,” said Kingston of Temple University. “But he has flip-flopped in his testimony and made statements that polls show most people don’t believe.”
A survey by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper and a supporter of the prime minister, found that almost 70 percent of respondents said Abe’s administration has become increasingly “arrogant.”
These challenges are reviving memories of Abe’s first term as prime minister a decade ago. In 2007, after Abe had been in power for only one year, the LDP lost control of the upper house for the first time in 52 years. That, combined with a financial scandal involving one of his ministers, led to Abe’s abrupt resignation, ostensibly for health reasons.
But there are big differences this time, said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. Abe’s ruling coalition still has a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, and the next national elections are not due until December 2018.
However, Abe could be setting himself up for trouble with the way he has tried to shift attention onto his longtime goal of revising Japan’s American-written postwar constitution. He has set an ambitious year-end deadline for his party to put forward a proposal and says he wants the revision to take effect by 2020.
“If it was just a matter of survival for Abe, there would be much less to worry about than 10 years ago, but this time he is really staking his premiership on the constitutional revision,” Nakano said.
But that task, already controversial, will only grow more difficult as Abe loses popularity.
“The LDP has been waiting for this moment for decades, and they may have their chance, only to see Abe blow it,” Nakano said, because the referendum on constitutional revision could turn into a confidence vote on Abe’s government.
Potential successors are already hovering in the wings.
Abe’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, has said he does not want to stay on in the cabinet after next week’s reshuffle — a move that is viewed as a sign he might challenge Abe for the party leadership. Other potential contenders, including former prime minister and current finance minister Taro Aso, are also sniffing around for support.