News analysis

Abe breathes new life into his ratings

Japanese PM's latest moves have revived support despite series of scandals

A Cabinet reshuffle. A seemingly humbled prime minister who has vowed to be more transparent and ensure that records of official documents are properly kept.

And not to mention some help from missile-firing North Korea that reminded people of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's firm hand in handling crises.

The 62-year-old, who has been in power for 41/2 years, appears to have steadied the ship just one month after a string of scandals dragged his approval ratings through the mud, sending them plunging from a high of 60 per cent to below 30 per cent in some polls.

Analysts say the premier's new team of ministers who hit the ground running has managed to quash talk that Mr Abe would not recover from two cronyism scandals and a cover-up controversy that led to the ignominious resignation of his protege, former defence chief Tomomi Inada.

Notably, reappointed defence chief Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Taro Kono were in the United States for high-level security talks two weeks after taking on their roles on Aug 3. Mr Kono, too, has visited Africa for a ministerial meeting on continental development and will go to the Middle East next month.

Political watcher Yu Uchiyama from the University of Tokyo said: "The respondents probably appreciated the relatively stable operation of Mr Abe's new Cabinet."

A Nikkei poll last weekend showed his government's support was on the up at 46 per cent, from 42 per cent earlier this month and 39 per cent last month.

What also gave the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a fillip was its stunning victory in Ibaraki prefecture on Sunday when party-backed political rookie Kazuhiko Oigawa, 53, beat six-term incumbent governor Masaru Hashimoto, 71.

This was the first major polls since the reshuffle and would give the LDP a boost going into three by-elections for Lower House seats in Aomori, Niigata and Ehime prefectures on Oct 22.

Just a month ago, the LDP was hammered at the Tokyo assembly election at the hands of young upstart, the Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party.

The LDP-backed candidate also lost in the mayoral election in Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region, to a candidate backed by the opposition Democratic Party.

Another factor analysts cite behind the revival in Mr Abe's ratings: new rules that his government is looking at to tighten record-keeping issues that have led to perceptions that Mr Abe had something to hide.

This, Dr Jeffrey Kingston from Temple University Japan said, "highlights that Mr Abe understands its evasions and bad memories, and missing documents suggest that the government has something to hide".

"They are trying to convince the public that they are aware of this, and will try harder to promote transparency," he added.

Right now, documents are sorted into five categories for storage - between one and 30 years, according to different levels of importance - with the rest kept for less than a year. No records need to be kept when documents are created or destroyed, and "personal notes" jotted down at meetings or even by peacekeeping troops out in the field need not be classified as official.

The recording and disposal of official documents lies at the heart of three scandals that have marred the Abe administration's image.

In the first scandal in April, the Finance Ministry said there were no documents to prove the circumstances behind an alleged sweetheart deal where a plot of land was sold to ultra right-wing operator Moritomo Gakuen. The contract for the deal was shredded after the papers were signed.

In the second scandal that broke two months later, the Cabinet office said "personal" notes, taken by officials from the Education Ministry at a meeting with senior officials from the Cabinet Office, were deemed "dubious" as they were not classified as official.

An Education Ministry bureaucrat had said the officials cited the "Prime Minister's intent" for the deal for a new veterinary school to be awarded to education operator Kake Gakuen, which is run by a close friend of Mr Abe's.

And then there was the cover-up of the daily activity logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan. When asked by the media, the Defence Ministry said both the hard and soft copies of the logs were destroyed, though this was later proven to be untrue.

Dr Uchiyama said any substantial revision of the record-keeping processes in the government would go a long way in revamping Mr Abe's image as a politician.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline 'Abe breathes new life into his ratings'. Print Edition | Subscribe