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Sanae Takaichi’s Disastrous Failure of Credibility

Takaichi FCCJ

Sanae Takaichi (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — Female executives and government ministers in Japan probably always have a higher bar to cross to really be accepted in their positions. When she was Japan’s first foreign minister, the volatile and sharp-tongued Makiko Tanaka faced unprecedented open defiance from top bureaucrat Yoshiji Nogami. And if that seemed peculiar to the case of the changeable Tanaka, not many years later a quite similar thing happened to the first, and so far only, female defense minister, Yuriko Koike. There can be little doubt that Japan is still ruled by a class of conservative old men who really, really don’t like to take public orders from women.

In that context, Sanae Takaichi certainly had her work cut out for her when she was appointed by Prime Minister Abe last December as the first female chair of the LDP Policy Research Committee, a powerful party position that had historically passed through the hands of the likes of Takeo Miki, Takeo Fukuda, Kakuei Tanaka, Masayoshi Ohira, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Yoshiro Mori, and the current prime minister’s father, Shintaro Abe, to name a few.

Like just about all of the female politicians who are successful in the context of the LDP, at an ideological level Sanae Takaichi poses on the hard right. It’s hard to tell if Takaichi’s rightwing stance owes more to personal belief or to political ambition, but it is of course a way to fend off predictable criticism from her conservative male peers that as a woman she isn’t tough enough to lead.

Be that as it may, in recent months it has become ever clearer that even as the Abe administration and the ruling LDP as a whole has been flying high with policy success and buoyant public support rates, Sanae Takaichi has not only been losing altitude, but is now in a downright tailspin.

She’s clearly not been on the same page with either party leader Shinzo Abe nor Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, and she appears to be positively out of the administration’s decision-making loop. She also seems to be handling the tasks she has been given rather poorly.

One reflection of this reality appeared at the end of May when senior party officials began grumbling to the media that Takaichi had failed to meet a reasonable deadline in compiling the LDP’s policy manifesto ahead of the July elections. Most notably, Secretary-General Ishiba stated acidly to the national media, “I have no idea what our policy research chair is talking about!”

But it was a public lecture in Kobe on the 17th that will become the error that will mark Takaichi’s political gravestone. In a misconceived attempt to support the Abe government’s pro-nuclear policy, she made a terrible gaffe. While arguing that it was cheaper financially to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors and would be “irresponsible” to leave them idle, she then claimed, “Although there was an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it did not create a situation whereby any deaths came out of it. While ensuring maximum safety, we must make use of our nuclear reactors.”

Frankly, it was not the first time that we have heard either Japanese or non-Japanese commentators claim that “no one died” at Fukushima. Indeed, a handful of people jumped to Takaichi’s defense and declared that what she said was right.

But as the majority rightly points out, there’s really no justification for this view. Certainly, the Fukushima accident did not expose anyone to such a high concentration of radiation that they quickly developed radiation sickness and died. And, yes, radiation-linked deaths of any sort remain well in the future — and some studies believe there will be none at all. However, the Fukushima disaster also encompassed a huge operation to evacuate people out of the hot zone. In the process, many of these people, especially the elderly and sick, died. There are also cases in which people committed suicide as a direct result of the accident. In total, the local governments in Fukushima Prefecture so far list about 1,400 people that they acknowledge to have died as a direct result of the nuclear disaster.

There’s no reason at all why only radiation deaths “count” when adding up the human casualties of this huge disaster.

The opposition parties predictably attacked Takaichi’s statement once word of it was spread through the media. Your Party Secretary-General Kenji Eda called for her immediate resignation. But the loud critiques came from some voices inside the LDP, the young star Shinjiro Koizumi among them.

Even more damaging, leaders of the LDP Fukushima Chapter went right to the national headquarters to denounce the statements of the party’s supposed policy chief. All of it was covered by the media.

Within a few days, Sanae Takaichi made a full apology, saying that she was withdrawing all of her comments in Kobe about both the absence of deaths in Fukushima as well as nuclear energy policy.

Considering that Takaichi’s position is ostensibly that of policy chief of the ruling party, it’s clear that she can no longer function in her current role. No one is going to accept policy direction from someone opposed by one of the prefectural chapters and who can’t even talk any more about energy issues. She has suffered a disastrous failure of credibility.

And it doesn’t end there. Most recently, she argued that next April’s planned consumption tax hike might be delayed at almost very same time that Economic Revitalization Minister Akira Amari, a close confidant of the prime minister, was arguing that no delay in implementing the tax hike would be possible. The ruling party policy chief clearly doesn’t even know what the prime minister’s policy is at this point.

Shortly after Takaichi’s public debacle, word emerged that the prime minister had decided that a minor reshuffle of the cabinet and party executive would be carried out in September. Sanae Takaichi is clearly at the top of the list as someone on her way out. Indeed, her case may have been precisely what provoked Prime Minister Abe go ahead with a reshuffle in the autumn.