TOKYO -- With voters set to cast ballots for the Tokyo metropolitan assembly Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party is struggling to get its message across amid a series of scandals involving key party officials.
"Our policy messages are not reaching voters because of all these reports" about the scandals, Abe said Friday at an indoor rally for an Liberal Democratic Party candidate. "I would like to apologize as the party president," Abe told the supporters in Koganei city in western Tokyo.
This was only his third stump speech since the campaign for the Tokyo race began June 23. But attendees at the indoor event were not exactly wowed by the scandal-plagued national leader. Some heckled the prime minister as he spoke. One shouted, "You think we are fools?"
Abe has been marred by the allegation that he used his influence to help Kake Gakuen, a school in Okayama Prefecture headed by a friend, receive favorable treatment in the establishment of a veterinary department.
But new fronts have opened up since the election campaign started. During a Tuesday rally for an LDP candidate, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada implored attendees to vote for the candidate, saying both the Defense Ministry and the Japan Self-Defense Forces want to see the candidate win. The statement drew instant condemnation as the SDF is not allowed to interfere in politics.
Inada later retracted and apologized for the comment, but the damage was already done. The defense minister "treated the SDF as if it belongs to her," Renho, who leads the main opposition Democratic Party, said during a stump speech Friday. "Such behavior must not be tolerated," she added.
Inada "cannot even tell what she can and cannot say," Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii said. "She should resign immediately."
To make matters worse, the Shukan Bunshun weekly published an article Thursday that alleges Hakubun Shimomura received a total of 2 million yen (roughly $17,800 at current rates) from the then chief secretary of Kake Gakuen over the 2013-14 period, when he was the education minister, but did not declare the money in the political funds report.
Shimomura, who currently serves as the LDP's acting secretary-general, admitted to receiving the money, but said the funds delivered by the Kake Gakuen official actually came from a total of 11 individuals and businesses as their payment for political fundraiser tickets. Since each of the donation fell below 200,000 yen, there was no need to report the money, he argued.
Change of game plan
Shimomura may be technically correct, but a close ally of Abe receiving gray money from a school at the heart of a scandal has handed opposition parties more ammunition.
"We have to wonder if the money was an illicit political donation," Yoshihiko Noda, a former prime minister who is now the Democratic Party's secretary-general, said in a speech Friday.
With a new allegation linking a high-ranking official in the LDP's Tokyo chapter to the Kake Gakuen scandal surfacing, the ruling party is becoming increasingly concerned about its prospects in the metropolitan election.
The LDP announced Friday that Abe will be speaking right outside a busy train station in Akihabara on Saturday, the last day of the election campaign. Keen observers see this as a sign that the prime minister is also worried.
To avoid coming under a barrage of criticisms and questions over the Kake Gakuen scandal, the prime minister has so far only given speeches at indoor rallies. It would be difficult to control the crowd at an open-air speech in Akihabara. But Abe apparently decided that he needs to face voters in light of growing public discontent.