Argument

Shinzo Abe Can’t Afford to Rest on His Laurels

Japan’s longest-serving prime minister has tough times ahead for 2020.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question at a press conference in Chengdu, China, on Dec. 24. Wang Zhao/Getty Images

Shinzo Abe has defied the political odds to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since the office was first created in 1885. Despite this notable achievement in the bare-knuckles world of Japanese politics, a weakening economy, an unfinished political agenda, and a minor but politically debilitating scandal that has hit his approval ratings mean that this is no time for him to take a victory lap.

When Abe took office in December 2012, there was little expectation that he would represent a new longevity in leadership. Abe had himself been in office from 2006 to 2007, one of a string of lackluster leaders who seemed to embody the country’s drift as the economy still struggled to recover from the collapse of the so-called bubble economy more than 15 years earlier. Resigning in disgrace, he was set to join the other elder statesman of forgotten former leaders. Today, with an overwhelming majority in parliament and two more years as head of the party, Abe is now likely to extend his leadership until party rules require him to step down in September 2021.

His term has not been without some significant accomplishments. Abe enjoys greater international name recognition than almost all of his predecessors and has helped to put the country on the global stage. Notably, he has made Japan a champion of free trade, a sharp reversal from decades of import restrictions meant to first protect fledgling manufacturers and then the politically powerful farming lobby. He rescued the Trans-Pacific Partnership from near-death after a newly elected President Donald Trump in 2017 pulled the United States out of the 12-nation pact that was meant to bring a new era in trade and, more practically, hold back China. Abe also pushed to complete a long-negotiated deal with the European Union, the largest bilateral trade pact ever.

One feature notably lacking from Abe’s success is any sense of charisma or the “personal touch” often attributed to successful leaders. There is no ardent base that he can draw on; instead, one of the most common reasons given for his continued rule is that there is no one else. In his seven years in office, Abe has deployed a cautious administration that steered a steady course, focused on the issues most important to the voters, and, most importantly, he has kept all potential political rivals at bay. 

He is also seemingly happy to take a practical approach and play the second fiddle to get what he wants. He has famously, if somewhat controversially, heaped praise on Trump, bringing gifts, celebrating birthdays, and honoring him with the big extravaganzas and imperial events the president enjoys. The jury is still out on whether this will succeed. The United States and Japan reached a tentative trade agreement in September in which U.S. farmers get greater access to the Japanese market (benefits that would have come under the Trans-Pacific Partnership), while Japan got little except the absence of punitive tariffs of 25 percent on automobiles. 

The value of the personal relationship is again being tested with as Washington seeks a fourfold increase in Japan’s contribution for the sizable U.S. forces based in Japan. But for Abe, the risk is worth the reward. Even though Japanese manufacturers are shifting to U.S. production, autos still represent 20 percent of Japan’s total exports to the United States, and higher tariffs would do considerable damage to the likes of Toyota.

This approach has also been a hallmark of his legislative agenda. Despite his reputation as a right-wing hard-liner on Japan’s past and a proponent of abandoning the pacifist constitution, Abe came into office vowing to make the economy his main priority, introducing a program he dubbed “Abenomics.” The program combined fiscal stimulus, structural reforms, and, most importantly, a massive program of monetary easing that helped weaken the yen. 

This legacy is now at risk, however, with Abe currently showing little interest in measures to help open the economy further and stimulate growth. As an advanced economy with a shrinking population, Japan faces prospects for growth that are inevitably limited. Abe had managed to push growth up to a near 2 percent annual rate in 2017, but this is now trending back to around 0.5 percent, according to forecasts for next year, as the U.S.-China trade dispute continues to drag down global trading volumes and a consumption tax increase puts pressure on domestic spending. The country has also been hit by a string of natural disasters this year, notably some of the most powerful typhoons on record. That has prompted Abe to announce a $120 billion fiscal spending package that is expected to offset the extra revenue from the tax increase and to help fund reconstruction efforts.

But to Abe’s critics, he was never all that interested in economics. Instead, his real goal is to rip up Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution and restore the perceived glories of the prewar period under a powerful emperor. Among the key figures of that time was Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was later jailed for three years by the U.S. occupation forces as a suspected war criminal. After his release, however, he successfully returned to politics and served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

Kishi had strongly pushed for a change to Japan’s postwar constitution, which had been drafted by the occupying U.S. forces, particularly the contentious Article 9, in which Japan renounces war and abolishes all military forces. Kishi contended that Japan should rearm and that with a proper military it would not need the help of the United States, an element that might appeal to the Trump administration. Even though a constitutional change has long been official policy of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the idea has gotten nowhere in 70 years amid a general lack of interest among voters. 

Even before becoming prime minister, Abe had vowed to take up the challenge, renewing his pledge on an almost annual basis. “His ultimate goal is to take a step toward revising the constitution,” said one veteran journalist who has followed Abe’s career. “His grandfather is the symbol.” 

His current idea is for a more modest change that would formally legalize the existence of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, even though the force has been in existence in various forms since 1950 with little debate over the legality. 

Despite its strong majority in parliament, the Abe government has had problems in even getting enabling legislation for a constitutional change approved. The opposition has been bolstered by a new scandal swirling around Abe over inviting political contacts to an official government event, the annual cherry blossom party. While this may seem unsurprising, such conflicts of interest have been enough to bring down Japanese prime ministers in the past. In the department of “How can we make this worse?” the government bureaucrats involved were found to have shredded the list of attendees on the same day the question was being raised by an opposition lawmaker.

The scandal has created sharp drop in the approval ratings for the Abe government, with a decline to 42.7 percent according to the latest survey by the Kyodo news agency, representing a fall of 10.4 points over a two-month period. “In normal circumstances, this scandal would be a threat to the prime minister, however, Abe is too strong and the opposition too weak. As with Abe’s other scandals, I expect this one to fade away,” said James D.J. Brown, an associate professor of international relations at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. Despite the setbacks, Brown believes that Abe will keep pushing for a constitutional amendment. “After all, constitutional change has been the goal of the LDP since its foundation. It would be strange if the party’s longest-serving PM did not at least try to drive through a change,” he said.

But Abe has also shown a practicality that has helped him to keep power, and he has shown a willingness to give up on pet projects when necessary. “He is a nationalist in the sense that he would like to make Japan great again. But in order to achieve his goal, he has been highly realistic,” said Narushige Michishita, a defense policy expert at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

If the scandal does yet again thwart a move to change the constitution, it may prove a blessing in disguise for the prime minister. An April poll showed that 54 percent of those surveyed were against changing Article 9, which could doom the national referendum required to adopt any constitutional change. “A national referendum should be when people are in consensus,” cautioned one Japanese corporate leader. “A national divide is the most important thing to avoid.” Not bad advice for some other parts of the world as well.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s economy and financial markets for more than 15 years.

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