Abe Is Not Trying to Build a New Empire

Abe Is Not Trying to Build a New Empire

After more than two decades of Japanese stagnation, one might think the world would cheer Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to shake up Japan. Yet like the late American comic Rodney Dangerfield, Abe would be forgiven for complaining that he can’t get no respect. Critics have denigrated his economic plans for being more smoke than fire, while his aggressive foreign policy has made him a target for political liberals in Japan and abroad, worsening relations with China and South Korea. Some see him as the greatest threat to Japan’s postwar democracy and pacifist foreign policy; others accuse him of trying to encircle China.

Abe’s latest act has brought condemnation both at home and from his nearest neighbors: On July 1, he announced that Japan would reinterpret its pacifist constitution to allow its military to engage in collective self-defense. Predictably, China and South Korea criticized the decision. Yet even the New York Times‘s editorial board questioned his commitment to peace.

But Abe is neither a revanchist nor a militarist, neither a scoundrel nor a dictator in waiting. He is the product of a changing Asia-Pacific region, a generational domestic economic slump, and an equally long era of domestic political realignment. And he may well indeed represent the last chance for reform of the current Japanese system. Should he fail, anything that comes after him will likely be far more radical and transformative than anything he has proposed.

Abe has set his sights high. After two decades of the country muddling through, the economic revitalization in Japan, for example, will be a difficult, long, and disruptive process. Yet the skeptics should realize that Abe has provided the only ambitious plan for reform that has a good chance of succeeding. His three-pronged economic reform plan, dubbed Abenomics, has already seen results. Abe implemented the first two parts of the plan — monetary expansion and fiscal stimulus — in the spring of 2013, which contributed to a 57 percent rise in the Japanese stock market in 2013 and annualized GDP growth in the first quarter of 2014 of 5.9 percent. 

The third part of the plan — structural reform to break up the stagnant and interlocked industrial complex derided as "Japan Inc." — admittedly faces challenges. His first iteration of the plan, announced in June 2013, lacked teeth. Abe raised further doubts in September, when he talked about postponing corporate tax cuts and labor market reforms, two of the key elements of the plan.

In June, however, he doubled down on reform, resubmitting proposals that would allow some employers more freedom in firing their workers, reduce the corporate tax rate, encourage start-up crowdfunding, and limit the influence of the agricultural lobby, among other initiatives.

But doubts over economic reform pale in comparison with the opprobrium heaped on Abe for his foreign and security policies. Abe has never hid his conservatism or his patriotism. Many left-wing commentators, however, accuse him of being a right-wing ultranationalist who refuses to believe that Japan did anything wrong in World War II, who disregards evidence of the sexual enslavement of comfort women, and who wants to militarily challenge China for dominance in Asia. 

In the mind of his critics, Abe’s hidden goal — or not so hidden, since many seem to discern it — is to overturn the post-World War II order. In other words, Abe wants to delink Japan from its close ally, the United States, and pursue a strategy to increase Japan’s influence and power in Asia. Those who fear Abe’s "reckless" agenda insinuate that unless restrained by the United States, Japan’s military cannot be trusted to refrain from future aggression.

Yes, Japan has to more fully educate its youth about the country’s actions in World War II, create museum exhibits, encourage the use of more-evenhanded textbooks, and more forthrightly accept responsibility for its wartime atrocities. And Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the souls of millions of Japanese war dead — including 14 Class A war criminals from World War II — was unnecessarily provocative.

Yet critics must also accept that all respectable Japanese leaders know that the war was a horrific mistake that Japan will never repeat. To believe that Abe’s shrine visit is a Rosetta stone for deciphering future Japanese aggression willfully ignores nearly 70 years of peaceful foreign policy and massive public support for a continued pacifist stance. It also ignores the dozens of apologies Tokyo has offered over the past two decades — none of which Abe has repudiated — and Abe’s repeated comments that Japan will "never again follow the path of aggression and war."

Abe’s greatest challenge is to convince his compatriots — and the rest of the world — to accept his plan for gradually increasing Japan’s security activities. For those watching from outside Japan, it’s important to understand the context: Abe is continuing and extending a trend that has been in place in Japan at least since Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone agreed to greater security cooperation with the United States in the 1980s.

Those who claim that Abe alone is radically changing Japan’s defense posture ignore the steady modernization of the country’s military and the gradual evolution of its security doctrine. The 1998 North Korean missile test over Japanese territory jump-started Tokyo’s military modernization. Abe’s predecessors from the left-wing opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), continued it. Abe’s detractors should remember that in 2012, DPJ leader Yoshihiko Noda changed Japan’s security strategy to incorporate plans to defend Japan’s southwest islands against Chinese incursion and decided to purchase the F-35 fifth-generation U.S. stealth fighter so Japan could keep pace with Chinese air-power modernization plans. And it was Noda who took the fateful step of nationalizing the disputed Senkaku Islands in September 2012 — sparking mass protests in China.

Perhaps what so bedevils Abe’s critics is a fear of upsetting the status quo — an unsettling feeling that surrounds his intention to strengthen Japan, both militarily and economically. Indeed, if Abe succeeds, he may introduce another element of potential uncertainty into Asian regional politics. But he might inspire confidence that allows other major regional powers to act in the name of maintaining stability.

The rest of the world understands Japan — a liberal democracy — much better than they understand the authoritarian nation of China. Over the next several decades, Japan will likely add significantly to stability in Asia through a stronger economy that boosts trade and investment, by working more closely with other Asian partners like Australia and India, and potentially helping take up any slack caused by a retrenchment of American forces due to shrinking defense budgets. All this would be good for Asia.

Do Abe’s critics really fear a strong, democratic Japan more than a strong, authoritarian China?