Just under four months ago, the politician described as the “most pro-Chinese” in Japan ’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was sitting pretty. Fresh from hosting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in November, Toshihiro Nikai – the secretary general of the unassailable LDP and head of the largest and most powerful faction in the party – had just finessed the appointment of Yoshihide Suga as prime minister, making him the undisputed kingmaker of the Diet. Suga has since made a number of politically damaging missteps – including ignoring his own government’s recommendation to stay at home during the pandemic to have dinner out with a group that included Nikai in December – and his public support rate has collapsed from the mid 60 per cent range to below 40 per cent. He also suffers from unfavourable comparisons to his predecessor, Shinzo Abe . Japan’s Suga faces make-or-break election year as coronavirus rages, Olympics loom “Suga does not have a large faction in the party to rely on for support, so he was grateful that Nikai gave him his backing after Abe announced late last summer that he would be stepping down,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of politics and international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, adding that Nikai had made it clear he had no ambitions to be prime minister himself. However, Nikai’s problems have grown in parallel with those of the man he worked hard to elevate. His reputation has been tarnished by a series of scandals involving members of his Shisuikai faction, including when Anri Kawai was found guilty of vote-buying in the 2019 general election and Akimoto Tsukasa was indicted for accepting bribes from a Chinese company in connection with a casino resort project. There is also growing unrest within the LDP to Nakai’s influence, and his apparently cosy ties to Beijing are a major problem in a year in which the government hopes to be re-elected. Underlining the importance that Beijing places on its working relationship with Nikai was the praise from Foreign Minister Wang after a state visit in 2019. At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Wang as saying that Nikai “has always firmly promoted the development of bilateral relations, especially friendly exchanges between the two peoples, and has made enormous efforts to this end. The Chinese side appreciates such gestures.” Jun Okumura, an analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said Nikai had for some years been “very influential” behind the scenes and was “the most pro-Chinese politician within the LDP”. He compared Nikai to Kakuei Tanaka, a party heavyweight who served as prime minister from 1972-74 and was known as the “Shadow Shogun” for his political machinations. Coronavirus: Japan cases surged after Go To Travel campaign began, study finds “Nikai was a protégé of Tanaka and has many things in common, although they are not nearly on the same scale,” he said. “They are both old-school LDP and politicians who pulled themselves up to the top by their own hard work.” Similarly to Tanaka, Nikai has over the years formed close ties with Beijing, although this has aroused concerns at home and abroad, with the administration of former United States president Donald Trump reportedly watchful of Nikai’s links to China. An analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said Nikai had “regular meetings” with the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo and had also built strong links with the Komeito Party, the LDP’s Buddhist-backed political partner. Komeito has a strict policy of pacifism and is also considered to be in favour of closer ties with Beijing. Suga, on the other hand, is a pragmatist whose primary concerns regarding China revolve around trade and ensuring that bilateral territorial issues do not escalate. But while there is tolerance within the party for that approach to China, there is growing resistance on the right to Nikai’s long-standing and close ties to Beijing. There has been no condemnation of China’s human rights violations by this administration, critics point out, along with how Tokyo has gone quiet on the situation in Hong Kong and has had a tepid political reaction to Chinese ships repeatedly entering Japanese waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea – and the blame for Tokyo pulling its punches against Beijing has been laid at Nikai’s feet. No sweet honeymoon for Japan’s Suga, buffeted by coronavirus crisis and political scandals Suga’s support rate appears to have arrested its drop in the past week, as Covid-19 infection rates fall and the nation begins its vaccination programme. But analysts say that if his administration suffers another blip in its fortunes – particularly over an issue involving China – then the factions that are hostile to Nikai’s influence may once again go on the offensive. Okumura from the Meiji Institute points out that after a lifetime in the business, Nikai is the “consummate politician” and is “all but certain to land on his feet” whatever transpires politically in the coming months. Suga’s position is less assured, however. The vote for LDP president is scheduled for September and the election for the House of Representatives must be held by October 21. If the LDP is still embroiled in a dispute over its direction in China and that concern is shared by the voters, then Suga’s tenure may last little more than a year.