By Theodore Shoebat
Before the murder of Shinzo Abe, there was infighting between factions within his party, the Liberal Democratic Party. The Liberal Democratic Party is the biggest party in Japan, and with it being so large, it is only expected that it would have different factions within. Shinzo Abe was the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction — the Seiwaken (short for Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyūkai or the Seiwa Political Research Council)— until his death. Abe had family roots in the Seiwaken; his father, Shintaro Abe, was leader of this faction from 1986 to 1991. This faction is in conflict with the Kōchikai (Broad Pond Society), the fourth largest factions, headed by Fumio Kishida, the man who replaced Abe as prime minister in October of 2021. Because Kishida’s Kochikai faction is the fourth largest, it had to respect Abe’s presence. As the Japan Times explains: “Abe’s clout came from his position as leader of the largest LDP faction. Because Kishida headed the fourth-largest faction, he would face gridlock within the party if he ignored Abe.”
Although Abe stepped down from his office in September of 2020, his shadow still hovered over the party, since he still remained the leader of the party’s largest faction. According to the Global Times:
“On September 16, 2020, Shinzo Abe officially stepped down from office and left the Prime Minister’s residence, but he never left the Japanese political scene. In addition to still serving as a member of the House of Representatives, he has also served as a consultant to several political groups, such as the top consultant of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Constitutional Amendment Promotion Headquarters, and often expresses his views on major current political and diplomatic issues in public, and his words and deeds are very high-profile. In addition, Shinzo Abe continued to master the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party … and used it to influence the operation of the Diet. With his support, two successors, Yoshihide Suga and Fumio Kishida, came to power successively.” (Ellipses mine)
A major Japanese publication, Nikkei, also reported on Abe’s grip over the Liberal Democratic Party after his resignation: “Although Abe resigned as prime minister in September 2020 due to ill health, he continued to strongly advocate for his policy priorities. Bureaucrats from the central ministries frequently visited the kingmaker’s private offices after his resignation.”
On December 30th of 2021, the Japan Times published an article entitled, “Growing friction between Kishida and Abe could mean turbulence for LDP in 2022”, which recalled that “Tension” between the Abe faction and the Kishida faction “reportedly rose in November after Kishida rejected Abe’s preference for the powerful LDP secretary-general post and appointed a Kishida faction member and Abe rival, Yoshimasa Hayashi, as foreign minister.” Abe was something of a maverick who ruled over the Liberal Democratic Party. For example, Hayashi was not satisfied with his position in the Upper House of the parliament and sought after a seat in the much more powerful Lower House, but Abe impeded his attempts every time.
Masato Kamikubo, a professor at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Policy Science Department of Policy Science, explained: “Hayashi was not happy in the Upper House. I understand he tried to move to the Lower House many times, but Abe rejected his efforts. After Abe resigned as prime minister in 2020, Hayashi was able to realize his goal”. Kentaro Yamamoto, a politics professor at Hokkai-Gakuen University, also explained that “There is a deep-rooted rivalry between Abe and Hayashi’s supporters in Yamaguchi and there is no doubt Abe’s supporters are also critical of Kishida, whose faction includes Hayashi”. Nikkei, in November of 2021, reported on how Kishida’s choice of Hayashi as foreign minister caused friction between the Kishida and Abe factions: “Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s choice of China hand Yoshimasa Hayashi as his new foreign minister faced opposition from the ruling party’s two most influential figures, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Finance Minister Taro Aso, Nikkei has learned.” One mid-ranking LDP legislator said, “There is increasing strain in their relationship,” — something that is continuously being talked about.
In April of 2022, the Japan Times described the rivalry between Abe and Hayashi as “a political contest that could alter the balance of power within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party for years to come.” There was an attempt by Kishida to contain Abe’s control over the party. The major Japanese newspaper, Nippon, published an article in January of 2022 entitled, “Kishida’s Farsighted Plan to Keep Abe in Check.” The article reads how insiders in the Nagatachō district of Tokyo began to believe that there was a rebellion against Abe by Kishida:
“Nagatachō insiders have recently started to speculate about whether Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is more decisively distancing himself from former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, announcing bold measures without attaining Abe’s assent. How Kishida engages with Japan’s longest serving prime minister, who still wields tremendous influence in the Liberal Democratic Party, is key to his own political longevity.”
The article notes that Kishida was “well aware that, if he alienates Abe, the foundation of his own political power could crumble. Even though Abe resigned from the premiership in 2020, he became the leader of the Seiwakai faction, the LDP’s largest, in late 2021. In this position Abe’s voice and influence within the party have only become more powerful.” So even though Abe left the office of prime minister, he still controlled the party. And his faction — the most powerful in his party — still ruled, and this caused tension with Kishida and his faction. One of the points of contention between the factions has been over Abe’s economic policy — or Abenomics — from which Kishida pledged to move Japan away. While he acknowledged the effectiveness of Abenomics in regards to GDP, Kishida believed that it did not help narrow the wage gap between rich and poor and wants a policy of more wealth distribution, as he told the Financial Times: “Abenomics clearly delivered results in terms of gross domestic product, corporate earnings and employment. But it failed to reach the point of creating a ‘virtuous cycle’ … I want to achieve a virtuous economic cycle by raising the incomes of not just a certain segment, but a broader range of people to trigger consumption. I believe that’s the key to how the new form of capitalism is going to be different from the past”.
Another point of contention has been over China. For example, in December of 2021, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (Shinzo Abe’s younger brother), requested Kishida to mention in his policy speech in the Diet that stability in the Taiwan Strait was an inseparable part of Japan’s national security. The line that Kishi wanted Kishida to say would have been something like: “The peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait cannot be looked as separate from Japan’s security.” But Kishida affirmed that the matter be left to him, and did not include the requested passage. A source close to the prime minister’s office explained, “We need to say what must be said to China, but there’s no need to go out of our way to provoke the country.” While Kishida’s faction may have a more moderate approach to China, the fact remains that Abe’s policy of boosting Japan’s defense (by, firstly, reinterpreting Japan’s constitution so as to allow a strong military force) is very popular in Japan, with about two-thirds of the population supporting it. Now that Abe has been murdered, his martyr-like status will probably reenforce his ideas in the collective consciousness of the people and the political groundswell. One thing that we do know is that Abe’s position of power within his party was rivaled by others within his own party before his death.