Japan's Shinzo Abe plays golf as officials stay silent over Carlos Ghosn

In a photo taken on Dec 25, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo speaks during a meeting in China.
In a photo taken on Dec 25, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo speaks during a meeting in China.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Since news emerged on New Year's eve that fallen auto titan Carlos Ghosn skipped bail and fled the country, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been camped out in a luxury Tokyo hotel, sharing meals with family, hitting the gym and even playing golf.

The routine, seen in detailed schedules published by major Japanese media outlets, is nothing unusual for the prime minister during the country's most important holiday of the year. But it's particularly notable after the dramatic escape of the leading figure in one of Japan's most high-profile white-collar criminal cases ever.

Mr Abe has made no public comment on Ghosn since he fled, and neither have any of his ministers. Officials at the prime minister's office and the foreign ministry repeatedly declined to comment when reached by email or phone. Japan goes back to work on Jan 6.

"It is a rather embarrassing situation, no matter how it played out," said Professor Jeff Kingston, an Asian Studies expert at Temple University Japan Campus who writes frequently about Japanese politics.

"I'd say the Japanese government is trying to turn the page and let a bad story die. The smart way would be let the prosecutors, the police and immigration deal with it, because they are the ones who fell down on the job."

Mr Abe has already seen his popularity fall in recent months due to a series of scandals that have affected his government. Still, he has repeatedly weathered similar setbacks since taking office to become the country's longest-serving premier.

Ghosn, who faced trial for financial crimes in Tokyo, secretly fled to Lebanon late last month to escape what he called Japan's "rigged" justice system. Lebanon, where the former head of Nissan Motor Co and Renault SA grew up and has citizenship, provides legal protection against extradition.

Apart from the holidays, one reason for the long silence could be that Mr Abe has limited tools to get Ghosn back to Japan. Lebanon's foreign ministry has said Ghosn entered the country legally, and it wasn't aware how he fled.

 
 
 
 

MINISCULE TRADE

While a senior official told Bloomberg that Japan was set to negotiate with Lebanon to get him to return to face trial, it's unclear what leverage Tokyo might have over the Middle Eastern nation.

Clamping down on trade, as Mr Abe did in a recent dispute with South Korea, wouldn't be effective: Japan accounted for 1.5 per cent of Lebanon's trade in 2018, and most of that was imports.

While Japan has provided Lebanon with aid in the past, the foreign ministry's website doesn't list any official development assistance given since March 2018.

There's no Japanese direct investment in Lebanon and only about 100 Japanese citizens live in the country, compared with roughly 200 Lebanese in Japan, according to the ministry's website.

Japan's only hope might be to enlist help from other Middle Eastern countries with which it has closer ties, according to Dr Kazuo Takahashi, an emeritus professor at the Open University who specialises in Middle Eastern affairs.

"Japan gives significant aid to Syria and Syria has leverage over Lebanon," Dr Takahashi said. Japan might ask the Syrians to pressure Lebanon to give up Ghosn, he said, while adding that he thinks the strategy would be unlikely to work.

Japan and Lebanon have a history of tussling over fugitives. The nations wrangled for years over Tokyo's request for the extradition of five members of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group, which carried out a series of bloody attacks in the 1970s. Lebanon refused to hand them over but in 2000 sent four of them to Jordan, which handed them over to Japan. It granted asylum to a fifth.

Japan itself has a history of declining to deport a high-profile suspect sought for trial in another country.

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori took refuge in Japan, where he was widely admired, for five years from 2000. He was eventually arrested during a trip to Chile and returned to Lima, where he was sentenced to 25 years for ordering death-squad killings.

"Japan will have to negotiate with the Lebanese government for a handover," former State Minister for Foreign Affairs Masahisa Sato said on Twitter. "Ghosn is a hero and it won't be easy."