Abe weathers ‘hot summer’ of protests as support bounces back

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe


By ANDY SHARP | Bloomberg News | Published: August 31, 2015

TOKYO (Tribune News Service) — Support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has bounced back, even as mounting opposition to his defense policy led thousands of people across the nation to protest Sunday against his push to expand the powers of Japan’s military.

The approval rating of Abe’s cabinet rose 8 percentage points from last month to 46 percent, according to a Nikkei newspaper survey conducted Aug. 28-30. The bump comes despite a majority of respondents opposing Abe’s economic policies and his plan to push through the controversial security legislation.

Opposition to the bills had undermined Abe’s voter support, which was also battered by the scrapping of a controversial Olympic stadium design, a leak of pension information, and concern over his war anniversary statement. A slide in stock prices has also cast fresh doubt on the effectiveness of his economic policies. Nonetheless, a splintered opposition and a lack of alternative candidates means he is almost certain to be handed another three years as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a leadership vote next month. Abe, who came to power in December 2012, is already the longest serving of the previous six Japanese prime ministers.

“Abe has weathered a hot summer, both inside and outside the Diet building,” said Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “It seemed for Abe the news could not get any worse, and then it happened: The news did not get any worse,” he said, adding that Abe seems to be “levitating in contempt of the normal downward pull of political gravity.”

Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender also may have helped his numbers, with the Nikkei survey showing that 42 percent approved of Abe’s words, while 33 percent didn’t. In his Aug. 15 message, Abe upheld past apologies for Japan’s wartime actions but sought to draw a line under future admissions of remorse.

“People are a little relieved over Abe’s pragmatic handling of the statement” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. “People realized that the opposition looks immature to handle all of Japan’s issues, including the economy.”

Organizers say 350,000 protesters gathered in front of the parliament building in Tokyo on Sunday, with similar demonstrations taking place at around 300 locations nationwide. The Kyodo news agency said around 120,000 people took part, while a Tokyo Metropolitan Police spokesman said there was no plan to provide an estimate.

Amid light rain protesters stood in front of the Diet building with placards reading “Reject the War Bill Now!” and “We’re Against War, Kill the Bill!” Yoko Goto, a retired 72- year-old who traveled from nearby Kawasaki City, said: “I hope today’s actions mark a sea change.”

Under a pacifist constitution drafted by the U.S. after World War II and unchanged for 68 years, Japan renounced the right to wage war, and its Self-Defense Forces have not killed a single person in battle since then. Abe’s legislation puts into practice his 2014 reinterpretation of the constitution, a change opponents fear could allow Japan to become entangled in U.S.-led wars and put the country in danger of terrorist attacks.

The proposed bills have been welcomed by the U.S., which wants support from its biggest Asian ally to help balance China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Other governments in Asia are also largely supportive, apart from China and South Korea, which are at loggerheads with Japan over territorial disputes and interpretations of history.

Parliament’s lower house has already passed the bills, which are now being debated in the less powerful upper house. If the upper house fails to pass them, the lower house can still enact them by approving them a second time, with a two thirds majority.

Massive public demonstrations against nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster failed to deter Japan from restarting a reactor this summer.

With assistance from Yuriy Humber, Isabel Reynolds and Kyoko Shimodoi in Tokyo.

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