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As Scandal-Tarred Abe Meets Trump, ‘the Situation Is Getting Dangerous’

But over the last few weeks, leaks of tampered files and previously missing documents are raising sharper questions about whether Mr. Abe helped friends at two educational institutions gain preferential treatment from the government. Mr. Abe has insisted he was not involved in either case and has suggested that bureaucrats may have acted independently.

The drip-drip of revelations has poked holes in Mr. Abe’s credibility as he prepares to meet Mr. Trump, who is himself consumed by his own scandals.

“There has been a lot of new evidence that has come to light that there has been some kind of cover-up,” Kristi Govella, assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said of the inquiry surrounding Mr. Abe. “As time goes on, the disjuncture between what he’s saying and the facts that are coming to light with the scandals just really increase public distrust and feelings that his leadership is no longer what the country needs.”

Until now Mr. Abe has proved relatively invincible in the face of calls by opposition parties to explain himself. Last spring, the scandals embroiled the prime minister in multiple rounds of questioning in Parliament, but the public grew weary of the arcane details of the cases, while both the opposition and the news media failed to produce definitive evidence that Mr. Abe had exerted improper influence.

But last month, the Finance Ministry said an internal investigation found that bureaucrats had tampered with official documents related to the sale of public land to an ultraconservative education group, known as Moritomo Gakuen, at a steeply discounted price. Mr. Abe’s wife, Akie, served as a onetime honorary principal of a planned elementary school that Moritomo wanted to build on the disputed land.

In one of the most damaging findings, the ministry said that officials had scrubbed Mrs. Abe’s name and alleged remarks encouraging the deal from the documents when they were first submitted to Parliament, known in Japan as the Diet. Then this month Mitsuru Ota, a senior official at the Finance Ministry, told Parliament that a bureaucrat had urged a lawyer for Moritomo to lie about how much it would cost to remove garbage from the public land in order to justify the sale at a discounted price.


Over the weekend, thousands of protesters gathered in front of Parliament calling for Mr. Abe to step down, while polls emerged showing that approval ratings for his cabinet had dropped to 37 percent. Credit Kazuhiro Nogi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week, the newspaper The Asahi Shimbun reported the existence of a memo in a separate scandal showing that Mr. Abe had talked over a meal to a friend seeking to set up a veterinary school in a special economic zone in southwestern Japan. The memo also suggested that a secretary for Mr. Abe had helped the friend set up the veterinary school.

None of the leaks have yet proven Mr. Abe’s involvement.

“There’s still nothing to say that Abe ordered the cover-up” or pushed for his friend’s veterinary school deal, said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy based in New York. “But between the Finance Ministry falsifying documents submitted to the Diet and the bureaucracy making up documents, those are things that are not just going to be accepted passively by the public.”

Mr. Abe “is running out of time, and there doesn’t really seem to be a way out of this,” Mr. Harris said.

For the five years that Mr. Abe has been in power, he has benefited from a weak opposition and public weariness over the revolving door at the prime minister’s office that preceded his election in 2012. And as Japan has faced increasing threats from China and North Korea, he has been able to persuade voters that he is the best leader to keep Japan secure. The economy has been gradually improving, too.

With the scandals gaining traction, however, that formula is weakening. “For the last five years we have had some consensus that Japan needs a strong leader and we have to sustain that strong leader,” said Ryo Sahashi, a professor of international politics at Kanagawa University. “But I think that consensus is now eroded.”

If Mr. Abe is able to hold on to power, it may be public fatigue that helps him. Norimasa Araki, 76, a retired trading company employee who was having lunch near Shimbashi Station in central Tokyo on Monday, said that the scandals were “not worth paying attention to.”

“The problems are trivial,” he added.

Still, there is no question that Mr. Abe has been politically weakened even if he secures a third term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in September.

Mr. Sahashi said it would be much more difficult for Mr. Abe to push through some of his most cherished agendas, including revising the country’s pacifist Constitution.

As Mr. Abe flies to Florida for his sixth meeting with Mr. Trump since the American election, he will be looking to make sure Japan’s security is not inadvertently compromised in any Trump-Kim discussions.

Mr. Abe is also likely to urge Mr. Trump to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional trade deal that Mr. Trump pulled out of during his first week in office and last week said he would reconsider.

“A big handshake with a U.S. president about trade liberalization is a chance for Prime Minister Abe to reclaim his ground as a reformer to the Japanese public,” said Takuji Okubo, managing director and chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors. “It is a good opportunity for Prime Minister Abe to show the public that he is a strong leader in foreign policy.”

Even if he can claim some kind of victory in his meeting with Mr. Trump, it is unclear whether it will help him. “Even now the vultures are starting to circle,” Ms. Govella said. “People are trying to figure out what comes next after Abe.”

Source: NYT > World

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