Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will no doubt find time for plenty of thumbs-up photo ops at his upcoming meeting with US President Donald Trump, but a spiraling crisis at home will likely be weighing heavily on his mind during his US sojourn.
On Monday, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, an Abe ally and former mentor, told a weekly news magazine that Abe could step down in June, Reuters reported from Tokyo. According to polls, Abe’s public approval ratings have hit all-time lows, fluctuating between 26% and 31%.
Abe is besieged by a scandal that just won’t go away: allegations that his wife had a sweetheart real estate deal from a hardline, nationalist school foundation. A recent official report on the issue placed Abe’s finance minister, Taro Aso, in the crosshairs. He is alleged to have helped a friend get preferential treatment in establishing a veterinary school.
The prime minister continues to insist he is innocent, but his denials are increasingly falling on deaf ears. Over the weekend, crowds of 50,000 demonstrated in Tokyo, demanding his departure from office.
All this raises significant questions as to whether his ruling Liberal Democratic Party will back him for a third leadership term in September — assuming he lasts that long, of course.
With multiple pressures building up, Koizumi asked in the news magazine on Monday whether Abe might, in fact, step down after the current parliamentary session ends on June 20.
Cold comfort in the US
Abroad, Abe may be seeking solace in his bromance with Trump when they meet on Tuesday, but even that looks to be on the verge of break-up. No world leader has invested as much political capital in building a relationship with the US president as Abe; none has as little to show for it.
Trump has hammered Abenomics with his pullout from the Tokyo-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral free trade agreement – though he is now talking about rejoining – his policy of keeping the dollar weak, and most recently, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs.
The one area where the two leaders had seen eye-to-eye was their “maximum pressure” strategy on North Korea. But Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic charm offensive, unleashed on January 1, means that even that could be on the rocks.
Trump has agreed to a summit with Kim brokered by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and is following Seoul’s policy in downgrading spring military exercises and engaging Pyongyang. Abe, on the other hand, had pressed Moon, in an uneasy pre-Olympic meeting, to hold the drills at full tempo.
There is no love lost between Seoul and Tokyo, with Moon pressing Abe to offer another apology to surviving “comfort women,” following his 2015 apology and subsequent payment of compensation.
Some expect the Japanese leader to ask Trump to raise the issue of Japanese abductees during his summit with Kim in May or early June; whether Trump will grant even that concession is unclear. The president may want to keep his historic pow wow with Kim focused firmly on the big-ticket issue of denuclearization.