Retiring amid Funds Scandal, Nikai Aims a Parting Shot at Kishida

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshihiro Nikai speaks at a press conference at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo on March 25.

“When you run for office, you are encouraged by many people. But when you quit, you have to make your decision alone.”

On March 25, House of Representatives member Toshihiro Nikai spoke these words to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida when Kishida visited his office at the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo. Kishida is the president of the LDP, and Nikai is a former LDP secretary general. Before their meeting, Nikai had announced his decision not to run in the next lower house election.

Nikai’s career as a politician spans nearly half a century, including his time as a member of the Wakayama Prefectural Assembly. The 85-year-old veteran’s words left Kishida tense and nervous. The prime minister bowed his head and said, “I am truly indebted to you.”

At the time, the focus was on certain LDP factions’ alleged violations of the Political Funds Control Law and how the lawmakers involved would be punished. The amount of money that Nikai failed to report in his political funds reports was ¥35.26 million, the highest amount among incumbent LDP lawmakers.

Both Nikai’s secretary and the former treasurer of the Nikai faction, which Nikai chaired, have been charged by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office. Therefore, the general view within the LDP was that Nikai would not be able to escape disciplinary action.

But on April 4, Nikai’s name was not on the list of 39 persons to be punished. In fact, it had already been decided before March 25 that Nikai would not be punished.

“If Nikai announces his de facto retirement, he will not be punished.”

This secret deal between Kishida and Nikai had been worked out behind the scenes through LDP General Council Chairman Hiroshi Moriyama, who is close to Nikai.

Although Nikai is old and has health concerns, he has not yet decided on a successor, expecting that his son may inherit his turf. He wanted to avoid being punished to maintain his own prestige and influence until the dissolution of the House of Representatives.

As of late March, some of the 82 lawmakers whose political funds reports contained irregularities, such as Abe faction member Ryu Shionoya, a former education minister, seemed to receive punishments even more severe than the party withholding its election support from them, as they had been in positions of authority but failed to put an end to the practice of kickbacks of money from the sale of tickets to fundraising events. On March 26, as dissatisfaction and doubts about the punishment swirled within the party, Kishida held hearings with Shionoya and three other former senior officials in preparation for the punishment.

By announcing his decision not to run just before the hearings, Nikai demonstrated that the political responsibility for the incident was heavy. This created an atmosphere that made it easier for Kishida to take disciplinary action. Kishida’s associates recognized that if even Nikai could not continue as a member of the Diet, it was only natural that the former Abe faction leaders should be punished.

The relationship between Kishida and Nikai is complicated. During the administration of past Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Nikai served as LDP secretary general for more than five years, the longest anyone has held the post. He wielded significant power in the party, and Kishida often suffered setbacks at Nikai’s hands.

In 2020, Kishida, who was then chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, worked hard to put together a cash handout of ¥300,000 to financially assist struggling households, aimed at cushioning the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the proposal was changed to give ¥100,000 per person to virtually everyone, without setting an income limit, at the behest of Nikai and the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito.

In the party’s presidential election that year, Nikai quickly announced his support for Yoshihide Suga, thereby setting the trend of the vote. Kishida was helplessly defeated.

But Kishida fought back in the 2021 presidential election. At the press conference announcing his candidacy, he declared that he would limit the number of terms served by LDP executives — clearly with Nikai in mind — stressing that it would prevent inertia and the concentration of power. Nikai had no choice but to step down.

Did Nikai surrender to Kishida at the end of his political career by speaking of his own retirement?

Some LDP members think otherwise.

“Because the former treasurer of our faction and my secretary are facing criminal charges, it is a matter of course that the political responsibility for that lies entirely with myself as their supervisor.”

At the press conference at which he announced his decision not to run, Nikai read these words from a paper he had prepared, with a blank expression on his face.

The case drew attention to Kishida’s own political responsibility, as the former treasurer of the Kishida faction had been indicted. In a nationwide poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun in April, 64% of respondents did not think it was appropriate that Kishida was exempted from punishment. This is believed to have been one of the factors behind the slump in his approval rating.

When I asked a former cabinet member of the LDP what he thought of Nikai’s announcement, he offered an interesting analysis. He pointed out that Nikai’s moves and words contained a harsh sarcastic subtext directed at Kishida: “I have decided to retire. Are you sure you don’t have to take any responsibility?”

The LDP lost all three lower house by-elections in April, making Kishida’s administration even more difficult to manage. I am curious as to how is Kishida taking Nikai’s message.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Shuhei Kuromi

Shuhei Kuromi is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.