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Japan's PM Kishida struggles to rebuild trust amid scandals

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
January 31, 2024

Amid a financial scandal that is rocking the ruling LDP party, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has pledged to rebuild the public's faith in politicians.

Fumio Kishida scratches his face at a parliamentary session in Japan
Kishida's administration has faced numerous scandals since he took office in October 2021Image: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

In a policy speech to Japanese lawmakers this week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to restore trust in the nation's politics as his party reels from a scandal involving hidden slush funds.

Analysts, however, say it is too late for Kishida and that he will eventually be forced to step down. Some also believe that the only reason he is still in power is because nobody in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party wants the post, as public anger is still very high and new accusations continue to surface.

Kishida was already struggling with public pressure during the latter part of last year. His public support rate was very low for Japanese terms  — around 24% —  as he bore the brunt of anger over rising prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel and climbing inflation, in addition to earlier scandals involving his son, and his party's connections to the controversial Unification Church. His critics have also blasted LDP's plans to increase public spending on defense and the proposed steps to halt the alarming decline in the national birth rate.

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Then, in December, his administration took an especially painful blow when it was revealed that dozens of LDP politicians had been raising millions of yen by selling tickets to party events designed to promote the party's policies, but only declaring a fraction of the total income and pocketing the remainder.

'Slush fund' prosecutions

The LDP party is traditionally divided into factions. Japanese prosecutors have indicted seven LDP politicians from the faction once led by the late ex-PM Shinzo Abe, whose political legacy is also a heavy burden for the party. The prosecutors accuse the LDP politicians, including former cabinet members, of failing to report 675 million yen ($4.58, €4.23 million) over the past five years alone.

Aides to two other LDP politicians from a different faction have also been arrested, and many party members have resigned with others choosing to take early retirement from politics as the scandal rolls on.

Senior members of the party have provoked further anger by claiming that falsifying fund reports was "traditional" and considered an accepted part of being a politician. The public was also enraged by LDP factions announcing they would atone for their misbehavior by dissolving — only to be immediately reconstituted as "policy groups."

'They have no trust left'

"There have been scandals in the past, of course, but I feel that the Japanese public has lost confidence in their elected representatives more than ever before," said Yukihisa Fujita, a former member of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party.

"Ordinary people are suffering from rising costs, the coronavirus pandemic made life harder and they feel they have been pushed into a corner — and now they discover their politicians have been cheating like this," he told DW. "They cannot understand it. They have no trust left."

The loss of trust is reflected in Kishida's polling numbers. They dropped to just 14%  in the first week of January, the lowest rate recorded since polls were started in the 1960s, although the latest polls indicate some recovery.

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In an editorial published on January 26, the Asahi newspaper accused the prime minister of making "no serious efforts to clarify the facts about the faction's shady dealings to create slush funds." According to the left-leaning daily, Kishida had failed to take timely steps to punish those involved in the scandal or make the investigation transparent to the public, despite his promises of "reform."

"The party is grossly mistaken if it thinks this 'reform' will restore public trust," the paper said.

Kishida's rivals biding their time

Last autumn, there were hints that Kishida would face a leadership challenge due to his bad polling figures. With the new scandal, paradoxically, there is now the sense that the prime minister is safe at least until the LDP's leadership election in September.

"It's fair to say that this is the worst period in the party's history and that is why there are no challenges to Kishida: Nobody wants the job," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

Kishida's LDP rivals hope that the slush funds scandal will begin to fade in the coming months and that Japanese voters will begin to feel the effects of economic recovery.  At the same time, however, wounds will probably still be fresh enough for Kishida to be ousted as party leader.

"I hope that when the general election comes around, that voters look back at what is happening today and reflect the anger they are feeling now in their vote," said Murakami.

"People are tired of all the scandal. They happen too often and this one is just too much," she said. "The public needs to take the opportunity to show its leaders what it is feeling."

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea