‘Whip it!’ Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Cabinet Of Horrors

Japan’s hitherto supine press appears to be waking up, revealing one juicy scandal after another in the Abe government. Here’s why.

10.24.14 9:18 AM ET

TOKYO, Japan—What do neo-Nazis, racists, necromancers, historical revisionists, bad accountants, and S&M fans all have in common? They all seem to have been represented in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet.

His new ministerial lineup got off to a shining start in September of this year, with Abe showing his support for the empowerment of women by selecting five female ministers, but that smooth start was quickly derailed by a series of scandals involving four out of five of the female appointees—two whom resigned this week.

In a second round of scandal, the latest Abe appointee facing a public whipping is newly appointed trade minister Yoichi Miyazawa, who allowed his political support group to claim expenses for a trip to an S&M bar in Hiroshima. Technically, such an expenditure may not violate Japan’s political funding laws, but it certainly does violate standards of good taste, even in “anything goes” Japan.

Trying to keep track of the Abe cabinet scandals at this point is a little like showing up late for a party where only half the people are wearing name tags, so let’s start with the most recent incident and work our way backwards.

On October 23, Kyodo News service reported that Miyazawa’s political support group had paid ¥18,230 (a paltry $169) to Mazan, a sex-themed bar in Hiroshima’s Naka Ward on September 6, 2010. The bar offers customers a live S&M show featuring women in underwear tied up in red ropes. Audience participation is allowed, including a bit of light whipping from time to time. The friendly staff will even teach you proper technique.

The association of a cabinet minister with a bar where the sexual servitude and bondage of women serves as entertainment is, well, problematic in many profound ways.

Miyazawa told reporters at the Ministry of Trade that day, “I didn’t know about it and I never went there myself. My secretary did. It was inappropriate. Such things (S&M) are not my hobby.” He ordered his secretary to reimburse the fees and will issue a correction to his political funds reports.

Miyazawa also drew criticism for not divesting himself of his shares in Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which was responsible for the triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in March of 2011. As Minister of Trade, he oversees TEPCO, which is attempting to put its profitable nuclear reactors back on-line.

Miyazawa replaced Yuko Obuchi, who resigned October 20 after her own office was reported to have engaged in shady and perhaps illegal spending of political funds.

Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also left her post the same day because of an alleged violation of the election campaign laws. Her re-election committee had distributed hand-held fans with her cartoon image on them to supporters during election campaigns, which touches upon the ban of distributing goods of value to gain votes.

Prior to the scandals involving the three above, two other female cabinet ministers were outed for ties to neo-Nazis, and the Police Commissioner of Japan, Eriko Yamatani, was shown to have long-running ties to a xenophobic hate-speech group, Zaitokukai. None of them have resigned yet. Zaitokukai was also partnered with the political arm of the Sumiyoshi-kai (Nihon Seinensha), Japan’s second largest organized crime group. (After The Daily Beast published its article about this, Nihonseinensha cut all ties to the hate-group, telling us, “We don’t approve of yelling and screaming at children. We no longer recognize them as a legitimate right wing group.”)

Another female Abe appointee, Haruko Arimura, Minister in Charge of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, was later reported to have stated in an interview, “When I’m not sure about national policy, I go ask for advice from the spirits of the heroes residing in Yasukuni Shrine.” Asking political advice from the dead seems slightly dodgy on its own, but Yasukuni Shrine is also where several war criminals are memorialized; Prime Minister Abe’s past visit to the shrine outraged Korea and China.

For those who’ve been in Japan long enough to remember Abe’s 2006-2007 reign, in which his cabinet choices were embroiled in a never-ending series of scandals that eventually neither he nor the Japanese people could stomach, it seems like Japan is in a time warp.

There is a great deal of speculation on why these scandals are coming out now in the press—but the explanation may be very simple. Perhaps Prime Minister Abe, who is constantly trying to revise Japan’s imperial past and whitewash war-crimes by the Japanese military, simply is living testimony to the axiom, beautifully stated by a medical orderly who treated “comfort women” sexually enslaved by the Japanese during World War II: “If we don’t face our past, we’re bound to repeat the same mistakes.”

Still, for the last year the media has been treating the Abe regime with obsequious deference. So one may wonder, what has awakened the sleeping lapdogs and why are they suddenly biting?

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The answer is two-pronged. In August, the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest paper, ran an article refuting some of their previous work on the “comfort women” issue—something that has long been a bone of contention for Prime Minister Abe.

The prime minister and his chief cabinet secretary seized the opportunity to criticized Asahi publicly for “shaming Japan,” sparking virulent right wing protests and threats towards former and current Asahi reporters. It showed that the Abe administration would use its position of power to silence opposition in the media.

While many magazines and newspapers joined in the public drubbing of Asahi, there has gradually emerged a fear among the press that, “maybe we’re next…”

The other issue spurring the Japanese media to do their jobs as watchdogs is an impending “time limit” on press freedom in this country.

On December 10, the Specially Designated Secrets Law will go into effect. The new legislation, which has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders, the United Nations, and most of the media in Japan, allows the government to declare anything it chooses as a state secret with no outside supervision or oversight. It is a Kafkaesque law that will allow journalists to be charged with sedition, facing up to five years in jail, for obstinately asking questions about something they didn’t even know was secret—because that can be “instigating a leak.”

It would be tragic if the scandals of the Abe Cabinet being unearthed are the last barks of Japan’s press before it is permanently muzzled. If Abe lets them bark up until the December 10 deadline rolls around, he may find they shut up on their own soon enough, and if not he’ll silence them himself. What he may lack in leadership or due diligence skills, he makes up for in his abilities to whip the media into subservience. Perhaps that S & M bar trip was actually a useful political lesson after all.

But maybe we should look on the bright side. At least Mr. Miyazawa is not the Minister of Women’s Empowerment.