Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on a celebratory tour of the United States this week. But a tougher test awaits him at home.
- By Tobias HarrisTobias Harris is the economy, trade, and business fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, USA and an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm.
The last time Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington, in February 2013, he was marking his triumphant — and unexpected — return to the premiership after five years in the political wilderness. In a speech at a D.C. think tank, Abe laid out a bold, confident vision for how Japan could overcome economic stagnation, strengthen its armed forces, and provide assertive leadership regionally and globally. The vision, Abe implied, began with him and would spread out to the country as a whole. “I am back,” he said, “and so shall Japan be.”
His visit this week to the United States is a celebration of Abe’s top-down leadership and what he has accomplished in the U.S.-Japan relationship since taking office in December 2012. For eight days, starting on April 26, Abe is traveling the United States, with stops in Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In Washington, President Barack Obama will host Abe for the first official visit by a Japanese prime minister in nine years. And on April 29, Abe will deliver the first-ever address by a Japanese prime minister to a joint meeting of Congress.
But after a week of speeches and toasts celebrating Japan’s resurgence and its importance as an ally of the United States, Abe will return to a people anxious about his plans for his country and an economy that continues to face serious obstacles to growth. Although many Japanese share Abe’s concerns about the rise of China and the risks of further economic stagnation, they are reluctant to endorse changes that would put the country’s armed forces in harm’s way or that would expose the country’s workers and retirees to new risks.
In other words, Abe is back, but Japan in many ways wants to stay where it is.
Perhaps most fundamentally, though Abe envisions Japan’s playing a more ambitious role in regional and global security, the Japanese public does not share the prime minister’s (or Washington’s) enthusiasm for a more active role for Japan’s military, known as the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Japan is dealing with the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals and China’s military modernization and assertiveness in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. It also faces the prospect of a weakening U.S. security guarantee, due to fiscal constraints and war weariness. To deal with these challenges, the Abe administration has raised defense spending after more than a decade of cuts and has upgraded the JSDF’s equipment. In July 2014, Abe’s government reinterpreted the Japanese Constitution to permit Japan’s armed forces to engage in collective self-defense — meaning that once the new interpretation is translated into law, the JSDF can aid the United States or other allies in a range of forward-posture scenarios.
However, a recent poll found that 68 percent of Japanese surveyed think that their country should limit its military role in East Asia, compared with only 23 percent who think it should play a more active role. This result matches those of a number of other polls conducted by Japanese media organizations, which have consistently found that firm majorities still oppose the Abe government’s constitutional reinterpretation. That’s not to say that Japanese are indifferent to their country’s threat environment — a 2014 survey found that the public is increasingly concerned about China’s behavior — but it is simply not eager to remove long-standing constraints on the JSDF.
Despite the public’s skepticism about a more expansive role for Japan’s armed forces, almost immediately after Abe’s return from the United States, Japan’s legislature — the Diet — will begin debating dozens of changes to existing national security laws to bring them into line with the new constitutional interpretation. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been engaged in a lengthy debate with its centrist coalition partner, Komeito, over looser restrictions on military deployments, and as the Diet considers the revisions, the government will likely face vociferous if ultimately futile resistance from opposition parties. But it may lose public support in the process. Even with new guidelines in place and collective self-defense enshrined in law, public opinion will continue to be a significant constraint on Abe and future prime ministers.
A similar dynamic dogs Abe’s economic policies. Economically, the prime minister’s “Abenomics” program — which includes the “three arrows” of dramatic monetary easing, fiscal flexibility, and structural reform — has produced a booming stock market, ended years of an overly strong yen, and delivered record profits for major corporations. In late April, the Nikkei 225 index passed 20,000, a level the flagship stock index has not seen in 15 years. However, despite these impressive gains, the benefits of Abenomics for Japanese households have been limited, not least because only a small proportion of households keep their savings in equities and other financial instruments. The unequal impact of equity gains, the blow dealt to household incomes by a weaker yen, and April 2014’s increase of the sales tax from 5 percent to 8 percent have sparked fears of growing inequality. Moreover, the tax increase actually caused a short recession in 2014 from which the economy is still struggling to recover: Japan’s GDP grew at an annualized rate of 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, considerably below expectations. Estimates suggest that Japan might actually have seen contraction in the first quarter of 2015.
In many respects, the Japanese people do not share the enthusiasm for Abenomics voiced by Western economists and investors. A recent poll found that in the year since the tax increase, 37 percent of respondents said their livelihoods had worsened and only 1 percent said things had improved. Similarly, 78 percent of respondents said that they did not feel a sense of economic recovery in their own lives, a proportion that has been echoed in other polls. Meanwhile, though the public may be broadly supportive of reforms to open Japan’s economy — polls suggest that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is popular — Abe has struggled to persuade entrenched interest groups to go along with the major, multinational trade deal and other structural reforms.
Finally, while both U.S. policymakers and the Japanese have welcomed the stability provided by Abe’s leadership — for which the prime minister enjoys approval ratings around 50 percent, high for a premier this far into his tenure — his government’s strength belies deepening political apathy among citizens. Over the past three years, Japanese voters have increasingly opted out of elections. In the December 2014 general election, voter turnout hit a record low of 52.7 percent — substantially lower than the previous record low of 59.3 percent, set in the December 2012 general election that brought Abe back to power. More recently, local elections held across Japan in April saw a record number of noncompetitive races for prefectural assembly seats and depressed turnout across the country.
Of course, Abe is not solely to blame for public apathy, which is as much a function of dissatisfaction with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and other mainstream opposition parties. Despite the seemingly tepid support, Abe has brought stability to a political system that had been cursed with a string of short-lived, unpopular prime ministers who were incapable of providing strong leadership (including Abe himself, who resigned as prime minister back in September 2007, after only one year in office).
But there is a danger that this situation could become self-perpetuating. Confident that its hold on power is secure thanks to a weak opposition and voter apathy, Abe’s LDP may simply not exert the effort to appeal to or convince the public of the merits of its policies; and voters, dismayed by a ruling party that is indifferent to their beliefs, may simply opt out of politics. Voter apathy and a moribund party system do not stability make. And a party incapable of providing broadly legitimate solutions to Japan’s economic and social problems will soon find robust opposition.
Abe deserves credit for providing badly needed leadership: He identified the most serious problems facing Japan, proposed solutions, and then set about implementing them. In doing so, he has signaled to the world that Japan is not resigned to quiet decline. And it is his determination to confront Japan’s challenges head-on that has won him the plaudits that will be bestowed upon him in Washington this week.
But the hardest work still lies ahead. Whether Japan declines, re-emerges as a great power, or ends up somewhere in between will depend not on the words and deeds of its leaders but on the willingness of the Japanese people to face their country’s problems.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images