Japan's Administration in Meltdown

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As a native son of Nagasaki, Fumio Kyuma really should have known better. On June 30, Japan's defense minister gave a speech on World War II at a university outside of Tokyo, where he told students that Japan could have easily ended up divided like its wartime ally Germany had the Soviet Union decided to invade Tokyo's defenseless northern island of Hokkaido in the closing weeks of the war. What stopped the Russians, Kyuma argued, was the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "I understand that the bombings brought the war to its end," said Kyuma. "I think it was something that couldn't be helped."

That's mainstream thinking among American historians, but in Japan, where the bombings' horrific aftermath is an integral part of its postwar identity, Kyuma had just talked himself out of a job. He was swiftly vilified by all parts of the political spectrum, including fellow Cabinet members, for appearing to suggest that the atomic bombings could be viewed as historically justifiable, and not solely, as Japanese are taught, as an unforgivable war crime. Kyuma had touched the third rail of Japanese politics, incurring the wrath of the influential A-bomb victims' groups. Though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe briefly supported his handpicked defense chief, by July 3 it was clear Kyuma had to go. "I told Prime Minister Abe I would take responsibility and resign," Kyuma said to reporters Tuesday afternoon. "I truly apologize for having troubled and caused worry to the people of Nagasaki." Abe replaced Kyuma with the hawkish national security adviser Yuriko Koike, who becomes Japan's first-ever female Defense Minister.

Kyuma's humiliating resignation is yet another body blow to the Prime Minister's swooning administration. A weekend poll reported that Abe's popularity had dropped below 30% for the first time, with a disapproval rating of nearly 50%. Kyuma is the third cabinet-level minister to exit during Abe's nine-month tenure; barely a month ago Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide under the shadow of corruption allegations. Meanwhile Japanese are enraged over recent revelations that millions of public pension accounts could no longer be matched to their owners because of decade-old bureaucratic errors, meaning some could end up short-changed come retirement.

Analysts say that the Prime Minister's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is likely headed for a fall at the Diet Upper House elections July 29 — and that failure at the polls could force Abe to resign. "Just as the LDP is looking for a comeback, its own member stirs things up for the worse," says Ikuo Hata, a Japanese historian at Nihon University. "Abe comes out of this looking like a lightweight as a leader and a Prime Minister."

Beyond the political shrapnel, however, Kyuma's gaffe represents a deeper setback to Abe. When he entered office last September as the youngest Prime Minister of the postwar period, Abe promised to make pacifist Japan as a normal nation, one that could defend itself and its allies on the world stage. He bumped up Kyuma's defense office to a Cabinet-level ministry, and set the revision of Japan's pacifist constitution as his signature issue. But Abe's vision of a more muscular Japan has excited few voters, who are more concerned with their pocketbooks, and constitutional revision has barely figured as an issue in July's election. The violent reaction to Kyuma's relatively mild speech — more of an offense against political correctness than history — is a potent reminder that pacifism remains Japan's knee-jerk reaction to anything related to the military, and that domestic sensitivities trump the realities of geopolitics, where nuclear weapons are an unavoidable reality. Abe wanted to change the game of Japanese politics, but the old rules still apply — and so far, he's losing.