The Reactionary Visionary

Can Shinzo Abe convince Japan’s voters that the path to future glory lies in the imperial past?


Some politicians thrive on the campaign trail, and excel at rousing crowds. Others are more at home in smoke-filled rooms, striking legislative bargains away from the public eye. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s natural environment is the podium in a crowded hall, where he can lay out his vision in front of a politely rapt audience.

Abe’s vision is of a Japan transformed. Perhaps Abe’s clearest elucidation of this was a January 2007 speech to Japan’s parliament, the Diet, during his first stint as prime minister. “In order to realize ‘a beautiful country, Japan,’” he said, citing a slogan from his first term, “My mission is none other than to draw a new vision of a nation which can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years to come.” Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe believes that nothing less than remaking Japan is imperative to overcome the crises the country faces. Abe wants a revolution in the Japanese state, society, and economy to enable it to remain a great power in Asia and the world, and to this end has implemented defense spending increases, lifted restrictions on Japan’s armed forces, spurred a radical experiment in monetary policy, and outlined structural reforms to revitalize industry and agriculture.

This is a grand vision — and one that would be difficult for even the most skilled politicians. It may be even more difficult given that the Japanese political system is especially full of veto players able to block change. Unfortunately, Abe is far more comfortable laying out his vision for Japan in 50 to 100 years than engaging in the wheeling and dealing necessary to translate his political vision into policy and law, or in the retail politics necessary to sell those policies to a mass public.

On Nov. 21, Abe dissolved the Diet’s lower house, ending its term two years before the next general election was due; and called a new general election for Dec. 14. Caught off guard by Abe’s decision, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other opposition parties have had to scramble to nominate candidates, and devise how to campaign against a prime minister who has enjoyed strong support two years into his government. As a result, polls suggest that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito could increase their already-sizeable majority.

The difficulties Abe has had implementing his agenda, however, will not vanish simply because he has a larger majority. Abe’s desire to change Japan — to make it more dynamic economically and more assertive militarily, like the transformational Meiji regime of the 19th century — may be too ambitious. It requires mastery of the policymaking process in order to fairly distribute the profits and pain from reform. And his considerable skill at selling his constituents on his transformational mission does not necessarily serve him well in power.

But it has certainly aided him the past. It was, after all, Abe’s sense of mission that helped propel him to the premiership in record time. First elected to the lower house in 1993 after inheriting his seat from his late father, Shintaro Abe, Abe the younger rose rapidly through the party’s ranks as a passionate advocate for a stronger national defense, and for calling North Korea to account for its abductions of Japanese citizens. In 2006 at the age of 52, he was elected party leader, despite having been elected to the Diet only four times. (Typically, party members are not even appointed to cabinet posts before they have won five elections in the Diet’s lower house.) While his pedigree as the son of a prominent LDP politician and foreign minister and the grandson and great-nephew of two prominent LDP prime ministers certainly helped, Abe pushed his way to the premiership by convincing voters that — in the words of the LDP’s 2014 campaign slogan — his vision is “the one and only way” to save Japan.

Abe’s policy agenda flows from the conviction that Japan must do whatever it takes to remain a regional and global power. Abe and his ideological allies are unwilling to accept gradual, albeit comfortable decline, passivity, or dependence on other countries. They believe Japan must lift the remaining postwar restraints on its armed forces — most notably Article IX of the constitution, which prohibits the use of force in international disputes — and bolster its military capabilities. They argue that Japan needs to take a hard line in territorial disputes with China and South Korea, to signal that it will not tolerate a change to the status quo in the East China Sea. And it must pursue a more equal relationship with the United States and new, independent relationships with countries including India, Australia, and Russia.

Arguably most controversial, Abe and his fellow conservatives believe they must rehabilitate Japan’s imperial past. They feel that Japan cannot be strong if its citizens are not proud of their country and its history. Therefore, they have sought to downplay or revise the history surrounding the military’s use of “comfort women,” and atrocities committed in China and other occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s.

The same desire to strengthen Japan motivates Abenomics, the government’s economic program of massive monetary stimulus, fiscal flexibility, and structural reform. But Abenomics is more than just a tool; it’s essential to the prime minister’s foreign and security policy goals: he believes that revitalizing Japan’s economy is necessary if Japan is to remain a great power.

Abe’s zeal for strengthening Japan likely made him more willing to approach economic policymaking pragmatically. Before his second premiership, Abe had shown no predilection for reflationary policies, but his idea that Japan needs to overcome deflation to stave off decline was enough to lead him to embrace unconventional monetary policy and other measures to spur inflation. It is not yet clear that his economic policy experiment is working. Although there have been some signs of progress in the fight against deflation — including a roughly 80 percent gain in the Nikkei 225 index over the past two years — the economy stumbled following a 3 percent consumption tax increase this year and is now in recession. In the New Year, restoring economic growth may take precedence over any long-term goal.

Abe’s beliefs about his role as Japan’s savior draw upon two sources. First, he was strongly influenced by his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a leading economic planner in the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, a member of Hideki Tojo’s wartime cabinet (for which he was imprisoned as a suspected class-A war criminal), and a postwar prime minister who helped found the LDP. Not only did Kishi pass along the conviction that Japan needed to be strong, wealthy, and autonomous, he impressed upon Abe the need for leaders to think big and not be afraid of popular opposition. Abe has also drawn upon the legacy of the Meiji Restoration, wherein an alliance of disaffected samurai from western Japan overthrew the decrepit Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 and built a modern state. Hailing from Yamaguchi prefecture — formerly Choshu, whose leaders were foremost among the Meiji state builders — Abe has been inspired by how the Meiji regime remade Japan’s government and economy to cope with a hostile international environment. The Meiji slogan, “Enrich the country, strengthen the military,” could also serve as a motto for Abe’s government.

This is not to say that Abe wants to remake the Meiji-era state or duplicate its imperial conquests, but it does suggest that Abe shares their Social Darwinistic beliefs that the international system is governed according to “survival of the fittest” — and that a country that is not rich, strong, and assertive is doomed. As he recently told the Economist, “Big reform was a must for Japan, and that was why my Choshu forebears put their lives on the line to achieve that.”

The enthusiasm that greeted Abe’s 2006 and 2012 elections reflects Japanese citizens’ willingness to be inspired by the prime minister’s rhetoric. But Abe’s Japan is not the late Tokugawa Japan, which feared the Western empires would treat it like China and carve it into spheres of influence. Nor is it Kishi’s Japan, recovering from World War II and trying to find its place in the cold war international order.

Rather, Abe’s Japan is a wealthy, mature, and greying democracy. Yes, the rise of China threatens to unseat Japan as the region’s preeminent power. But unlike in the 19th century, the threat is not colonization but marginalization.

Like other advanced industrial democracies, established interests in political parties, the bureaucracy, and the private sector dominate policymaking in Japan. Having never run a ministry or served as a bureaucrat — unlike nearly all of the LDP’s previous prime ministers — Abe may simply lack the wherewithal to translate his vision into policy. While Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, has helped manage the bureaucracy and the LDP, realizing Abe’s transformational vision may simply be too daunting. Overcoming entrenched opposition in a single policy area can be an exhausting process. Simultaneously tackling economic growth through reflation, structural reform in multiple sectors, and fiscal consolidation — to say nothing of constitutional revision and remilitarization — may be impossible.

The greatest obstacle to Abe’s mission to strengthen Japan, however, is the Japanese people. While Abe may win another big victory on Sunday, it will not be a ringing endorsement of his vision. Many Japanese voters do not share Abe’s vision of restoring Japan to greatness. While some are troubled by China’s rise, Japanese voters do not think Japan needs to be fundamentally transformed to keep pace. Polls little support for constitutional change or dramatic changes in Japan’s security posture, and citizens appear to be increasingly skeptical about the ability of Abenomics to improve their livelihoods, let alone restore Japan to greatness. Voters continue to care more about jobs and the security of their pensions than about the pursuit of strength and power. A hurried two-week election campaign has done little to change their minds; for all his determination to change Japan, Abe has not convinced the Japanese people to embrace the risks and dangers of great-power competition again. And so as he returns to governing, Abe will face the same challenges as before: a system that privileges the defenders of the status quo at the expense of reform, a people skeptical about his vision for Japan, and a pile of economic and social problems with few easy solutions.


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