LDP eyes adding clause to Constitution to ensure equal education

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is mulling pushing to add a statement to the Constitution to ensure that financial factors do not deprive Japanese citizens of the opportunity to get an education, party sources said Sunday.

In May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a plan to amend the postwar Constitution for the first time ever. More specifically, he proposed discussing making universities and other institutions offering higher education free, and amending the war-renouncing article of the supreme law.

The ruling party’s constitutional reform panel is now seeking to add a statement to Article 26 of the Constitution to ensure an equal opportunity to education, the sources said. An idea has also been floated to add a clause to oblige the state to improve education.

The Article 26 says “all people shall have the right to receive an equal education corresponding to their ability.” It also states that compulsory education at elementary to junior high schools be provided free.

Despite Abe’s call for debate to make higher education free, the LDP panel does not plan to recommend doing so because of budgetary constraints, the sources said.

According to the education ministry, more than 3 trillion yen ($27 billion) is required to make public and private universities tuition free.

Abe, the LDP leader, made the proposal in a video message to a gathering marking the 70th anniversary of the charter’s coming into force.

The Komeito party, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, is also reluctant to expand the scope of free education.

“There are various opinions over the matter given budgetary constraints,” a senior official of the LDP committee said.

The group will instead consider enacting a law aimed at eventually making advanced education free, the official added.

The committee will accelerate its efforts to compile a draft clause as the prime minister wants to present it to the constitutional commissions of the upper and lower houses during an extraordinary Diet session this fall.

The current Constitution has never been revised since it went into effect in 1947, nor has a bid been made to initiate a formal amendment process, partly because of the high hurdle in proposing an amendment in parliament before it can be put to a referendum.



Abe’s support slides again before Diet appearance

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s support slid 10 points to 26% in a poll published on Sunday, a day before he will be grilled in the Diet over a suspected scandal that is cutting his ratings to the lowest since taking office in 2012.

The July 22-23 Mainichi newspaper poll also showed that 56% of respondents did not back Abe’s government, a 12-point rise from a previous survey in June.

The precipitous drop in support does not immediately threaten Abe’s job, but clouds the outlook for the premier. Abe was until recently seen as on track to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister by winning a third three-year term when his current tenure ends in September 2018.

Abe and his aides have repeatedly denied intervening to help Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) win approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone. Its director, Kotaro Kake, is a friend of Abe.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, an Abe protege, meanwhile faces calls to resign over media reports, which she has denied, of direct involvement in a ministry cover-up of documents about a sensitive peacekeeping operation.

The scandals and a perception among many voters that Abe’s administration is taking them for granted, are encouraging rivals and casting doubt on Abe’s hopes for a third term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader.

Abe is expected to reshuffle his cabinet early next month in an effort to repair his damaged ratings, a step often taken by beleaguered leaders but one that can backfire if novice ministers become embroiled in scandals or commit gaffes.

Abe will appear at an ad hoc committee meeting in the Diet on Monday. Also appearing at the session will be his aide Hiroto Izumi, and Kihei Maekawa, who resigned as the education ministry’s top bureaucrat in January and has accused the government of distorting the approval process.

Opposition lawmakers are also expected to grill Abe about media reports that Inada allowed defense officials to conceal logs about the activities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan.

Media reports have said officials had tried to hide the logs because they showed a worsening security situation in the African country. Japan ended its participation in the peacekeeping operation in May but said the withdrawal was not related to security concerns.


Abe’s sagging support dims outlook for revising constitution

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cherished goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution has become more difficult to achieve after a plunge in his popularity and the erosion of public trust, a ruling party lawmaker said on Wednesday.

Support for Abe has plummeted to its lowest since he surged back to power in 2012 with a conservative agenda of reviving traditional values and loosening constraints on the military that centers on revising the U.S.-drafted post-war constitution.

In May, Abe made a surprise proposal to revise the charter’s war-renouncing Article 9 by 2020 to clarify the ambiguous status of its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, by 2020.

Meeting that deadline would mean adopting an amendment in parliament next year, since pro-revision forces in the lower house are likely to lose their super-majority in an election that must be held by late 2018.

Amendments need the approval of two-thirds of both chambers and a majority in a referendum.

“There is no change in the goal towards which we are working but greater efforts are needed now to achieve that goal,” Hajime Funada, deputy head of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party task force on constitutional reform, told Reuters in an interview.

“Rather than a matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ towards revising Article 9 itself, trust and expectations toward Prime Minister Abe, who is advocating it, have fallen sharply,” Funada said, adding that the LDP’s junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, had also grown more cautious about amending the charter.

Amending Article 9, which renounces the right to wage war as a way to settle international disputes, is a divisive issue in Japan.

Supporters of the article see it as the foundation of post-war democracy but many conservatives see it as a humiliation, imposed after defeat in World War Two.

Amending the article would also raise concern in China and South Korea, where bitter memories of the conflict run deep.


Abe’s proposal would be to retain the two clauses of Article 9 that renounce the right to wage war and ban maintenance of air, land and sea forces, while adding a clause legitimizing the SDF.

The impact of that change is hotly debated. Proponents say it would merely inscribe existing policies in the constitution, while critics worry it would open the door to a bigger role for the military overseas.

Abe’s popularity has been battered by suspicions of scandal over favoritism for a friend’s business and by the perception among many voters that he and his aides have grown arrogant.

The prime minister is set to reshuffle his cabinet next month to try to revive his sagging support, but Funada said the impact of personnel changes would probably be limited.

“Unless he changes his attitude and his mindset, things will not improve,” Funada said.

The appearance that Abe is hurrying to amend the constitution while he himself is in office was making the party task force’s job harder, Funada said.

Abe is keen to achieve his goal in part because it eluded his grandfather, a conservative who had to resign as prime minister in 1960 due to a public furore over a U.S.-Japan security pact.

Until recently, Abe was favored to win a third three-year term as LDP leader, and hence premier, when his current term expires in September 2018, but that has become less certain.

“His feeling of wanting to try to revise the constitution while premier and if possible, succeed, is taking precedence and that has begun to be obvious,” Funada said.

“We’re in a bind.”



Abe to replace defense, justice ministers in shakeup: sources

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to replace his beleaguered defense and justice ministers in a cabinet reshuffle in the first week of August, attempting to revive his fortunes after a stinging defeat in Tokyo metropolitan elections, government and party sources said Friday.

Abe is also tipped to overhaul key posts in the Liberal Democratic Party he leads at the same time, the sources said, adding that Aug 3 is a strong possibility for the cabinet reshuffle. Abe is expected to make a final decision after he returns from his European trip on Wednesday.

He is likely to retain the core members of his cabinet and the LDP.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, a conservative ally of Abe, and Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda both faced questions about their competency. Each joined the cabinet in the previous reshuffle on Aug. 3 last year.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga spoke little on the issue at a press conference on Friday, only saying it is a “matter left to the prime minister.”

He was initially expected to conduct a reshuffle in September when the tenures of LDP leadership posts expire, but the party’s historic defeat in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election last Sunday appears to have forced his hand.

The election loss was the latest bad news for Abe, who has seen a plunge in his cabinet support rate due to the ruling parties’ steamrolling of controversial “conspiracy” legislation to penalize the planning of crimes, as well as allegations of favoritism by Abe in relation to a veterinary school construction project.

Inada’s gaffe in a campaign speech before Sunday’s election, in which she implied the Self-Defense Forces’ support for an LDP candidate, is also believed to have contributed to the party’s defeat. Her comment drew flak for suggesting the SDF is not politically neutral.

She faced fresh criticism for being away from the Defense Ministry for about an hour on Thursday while around 1,600 SDF members were mobilized for search and rescue efforts in the wake of flooding and mudslides in southwestern Japan. At the time the weather agency was warning of a once-in-decades disaster.

She said she was out attending a “study session” with some people, though it was not an official duty. Three other politicians serving in top posts at the ministry were also away from the complex around the same time, leading some ruling and opposition party members to question the government’s crisis management procedures.

Inada defended her action at a press conference Friday, saying that she remained informed of the disaster situation and was able to return to the ministry in 15 minutes if need be.

As for Kaneda, his handling of deliberations in the previous Diet session on the controversial conspiracy law provided a target for opposition parties at an inopportune time for the administration.

“It would be unfathomable for (Inada and Kaneda) to remain in their roles,” a senior member of the ruling coalition said Friday.

By refreshing the cabinet lineup next month, the prime minister is apparently aiming to allow newly installed ministers sufficient time to familiarize themselves with their portfolios before an extraordinary Diet session expected to convene in September.

The LDP is eager to convene the session at an early date in light of its goal of submitting a proposal to amend the Constitution for the first time. The party hopes to secure enough time to debate the plan in constitutional commissions in both Diet chambers.

Abe’s close aides are likely to remain in their posts to continue supporting the prime minister, now in his fifth year in office. They include Suga, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura.

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Keiichi Ishii, the only minister belonging to the Komeito party, which forms a ruling coalition with the LDP, is also thought likely to stay on.

Abe is currently in Hamburg, Germany, to attend a two-day meeting of the Group of 20 major economies through Saturday.



LDP headed toward big defeat in Tokyo assembly election

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was on track for a stinging defeat in an election in the Japanese capital on Sunday, exit polls showed, signalling trouble for the Japanese leader, who has suffered from slumping support because of a scandal over suspected favoritism for a friend’s business.

On the surface, the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly election is a referendum on Governor Yuriko Koike’s year in office, but a poor showing for Abe’s party will also be taken as rebuke of his 4-1/2-year-old administration.

Public broadcaster NHK said Koike’s Tokyo Citizens First party and its allies were on track for between 73 to 85 seats in the 127-seat assembly. The LDP was forecast to take between 13 and 39, down from 57 before the poll and possibly its worst showing ever.

“I am very happy that I got everyone’s understanding,” a smiling Koike said in televised remarks after the exit polls were released. NHK said her own new party was set to win 48 to 50 seats.

Past Tokyo elections have been bellwethers for national trends. A 2009 Tokyo poll in which the LDP won just 38 seats was followed by its defeat in a general election that year, although this time no lower house poll need be held until late 2018.

Koike, a media-savvy ex-defense minister and former LDP member pushing a reformist message, was aiming for her Tokyo Citizens First party and allies to win a majority in the assembly, to end the LDP’s domination of the chamber.

Among her allies is the Komeito party, the LDP’s national coalition partner.

The strong showing by Koike’s party will fuel speculation that she will make a bid for the nation’s top job, though that may not be until after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

It could also widen cracks between the LDP and the Komeito while damaging prospects for the opposition Democratic Party.

Abe’s rivals in his party could be encouraged by the LDP’s dismal performance to challenge him in a leadership race in September 2018, victory in which would set Abe on course to become Japan’s longest-serving leader and bolster his hopes of revising the post-war, pacifist constitution.

Gerry Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University, speaking before the results, said Japan’s political landscape could be set for a shake-up if Koike’s party and its allies win big.

“We may discover that Japan is not all that different from Britain, France, and the U.S. in its ability to produce a big political surprise,” he said, referring to recent elections in those countries.

Abe’s troubles centre on concern he may have intervened to help Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), whose director, Kotaro Kake, is a friend, win approval for a veterinary school in a special economic zone.

The government has not granted such an approval in decades due to a perceived glut of veterinarians. Abe and his aides have denied doing Kake any favours.

Potentially more troublesome is the impression among many voters that Abe and his inner circle have grown arrogant.


Opposition demands defense minister quit over SDF remark in stumping

Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party demanded Wednesday that Defense Minister Tomomi Inada resign over a remark it says amounts to making political use of the Self-Defense Forces to attract support for a candidate in the upcoming Tokyo metropolitan assembly election.

“Her comment, which conflicts with the SDF law, was out of line and she should resign immediately,” Democratic Party leader Renho told reporters in Tokyo. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bears responsibility for having appointed her.”

Inada had asked voters to back a candidate of her Liberal Democratic Party in a stump speech on Tuesday, saying the request came from “the Defense Ministry, the SDF, the defense minister and the LDP.” Hours later, she told reporters she will “withdraw” the comment because it could be “misunderstood.”

The minister has said she does not intend to resign over the remark.

Under the law governing the country’s defense apparatus, the SDF is meant to remain politically neutral and its personnel are restricted in their ability to engage in political activities.

The LDP is hoping to remain the largest party in the metropolitan assembly when Tokyo voters go to the polls this Sunday, but faces an uphill battle against a new party formed by popular Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike. The ruling party is also under fire over recent favoritism allegations against Abe in connection with a university project involving a close friend.

Koike told reporters Tuesday the minister’s remark was “inconceivable,” adding Inada should not have been confused about the SDF’s position.

Abe has cautioned Inada over the remark but asked her to stay on, the government’s top spokesman said Wednesday.

“The prime minister gave her the same instruction that I did…(We) want her to fulfill her responsibility to explain herself as a minister, and continue to perform her role,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

Suga insisted Inada’s conduct will have no impact on the Tokyo assembly election or on the timing of Abe’s next Cabinet reshuffle. The prime minister is thought to be considering a change in the Cabinet lineup at some point later this year.

Renho, meanwhile, said Inada has no choice but to step down on her own or be sacked by Abe.

The Democratic Party and three smaller opposition parties are expected to agree later Wednesday to make a joint call for Inada’s resignation.

But a senior government official told reporters on Wednesday there is no need for Inada to quit, because she “took back her remark and apologized. That’s the end of it.”

A fellow Cabinet minister denied Inada needs to resign, but said she “should have noticed and corrected her comment immediately afterward.” Suga said he instructed her to swiftly retract the remark when she reported the matter to him over the phone Tuesday night.

A former defense minister slammed Inada as “not understanding the basics.”

“It’s a taboo among taboos to involve the SDF in elections or politics,” the former minister said.

A source close to the prime minister’s office, meanwhile, suggested that Inada is not likely to be swapped out prior to an envisioned Cabinet overhaul.

Abe made Inada defense minister in a reshuffle in August last year.

She is set to take part in ministerial security talks in Washington next month with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.