Issei Kato / Courtesy Reuters Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, July 21, 2013.

No About-Face for Abe

Why Japan's Prime Minister Won't Turn Hawkish

For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the recent electoral triumph of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in upper-house elections was a personal redemption; he has come a long way since his political downfall in 2007, when he resigned as prime minister after serving only a year in office. More importantly, though, the victory gave his party and its coalition partner control of both chambers of the legislature. For the better part of the last six years, Japanese politics had been locked in a standoff between the upper and lower houses, which different parties controlled. The battle now won, the conservative prime minister will, in theory, be able to pass legislation at will.

That has caused some anxiety in the international press that Abe, who has thus far focused on fixing his country’s troubled economy, will shed his sheep’s skin and reveal his inner wolf. In light of the LDP victory, the argument goes, Abe will put economic reforms on the backburner and instead focus on amending Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, which renounces the country’s right to threaten or use force to settle international disputes. In turn, he will return his pacifist nation to its old imperial ways. Worried, The New York Times warned the prime minister not to view his win as an “endorsement of his disturbingly right-wing foreign-policy views, which include a nationalistic revision of World War II history, overheated rhetoric toward China and attempts to rewrite Japan’s Constitution to permit more assertive military actions.”

There are several problems with this line of thinking. Abe is not the hard-core nationalist that the international press makes him out to be. The New York Times editorial is full of erroneous suggestions: Since returning to the prime minister’s office in December, Abe -- to the best of the knowledge of the two authors of this article -- has simply not made “disturbing” foreign-policy statements or used “overheated rhetoric toward China.” In reality, Abe is a pragmatist. He might have made provocative remarks in the past -- such as when he expressed interest in visiting the Yasukuni shrine during his campaign for the LDP presidency in 2012 -- but he has shown restraint as prime minister. (And that is even true of his failed premiership six years ago.) He understands the realities of governance and his mandate. More than anything, he knows that Japanese voters have given him a chance to fix his country’s long-stalled economy. That is why his election campaign and his first seven months in office were centered almost exclusively on what has been termed “Abenomics.” 

Speculation that Abe will suddenly scuttle work into which he has invested so much capital simply does not add up. His radical economic plans are not that easy to reverse. The Bank of Japan, which is independent from the government, has already stated that it will double the monetary base over the next two years in its effort to end deflation, which has crippled the economy for 15 years. And the Abe government has promised to formulate a second "growth strategy" this autumn as a follow-up to the one it announced in early June. The June strategy had been met with much disappointment: the Nikkei stock market fell to a two-month low. Abe will need to focus his energy on freeing up the labor market and taking serious steps toward structural reform -- or the “third arrow” of his policy -- in order to win back market confidence.

In addition, there is no real political reason for Abe to shy away from his ambitious economic plans. Abenomics might be controversial because of its unorthodox and drastic approach, namely its aggressive plan to double the money supply by 2015 and its towering stimulus package of over 20 trillion yen. But it will not create fierce political enemies. After all, Abenomics isn't about alienating a particular interest group or segment of the population through reforms. Rather, it is about kick-starting an economy that has been plagued for two decades by inertness, inaction, and negativity.

In terms of the public, Abe knows that there is infinitely more pressure on him to focus on putting more yen on the kitchen table rather than on poking at China or South Korea or reshaping the constitution. Abe and his party understand that they have not yet been given a blank check. Voter turnout in the upper-house election was only 52 percent, and most LDP members steered clear of controversy on the foreign policy front. It should not be surprising, then, that two days after the elections Abe told his cabinet: “We will press on with our growth strategy -- we must roll up our sleeves and live up to the mandate that has been given to us.”

Setting aside the economic, political, and popular appeal of forging ahead with Abenomics, Abe would also have difficulty reframing his leadership around dramatic issues such as history and constitutional change. First, the realities of Japan’s legislative process would force Abe to tread carefully. Any revision of Japan’s constitution would require two-thirds support from both houses of parliament and the approval of the public. Despite a hefty electoral haul, the two-thirds bar is outside of Abe’s reach. His party relies on at least a modicum of compromise and deference from the LDP’s coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, which holds enough seats to prevent the LDP from getting its two-thirds majority in the lower house if it withdraws support for the prime minister. The alliance is even more important in the upper house, where the LDP still holds less than half of the seats. For its part, the New Komeito Party has repeatedly refused to entertain ideas of revising Article 9 and Article 96, which sets the lofty bar for constitutional amendments at two-thirds vote in both houses and a public referendum.

Second, recent polls have indicated that, even if a revised constitution did pass the parliament, it is far from certain that the public would approve it. Recent polling from the liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper indicates that nearly 55 percent of Japan’s voters oppose such an initiative. The fact is that most Japanese people have embraced their country’s pacificism and have yet to be adequately convinced that walking back from it is necessary or beneficial for Japan’s prosperity and security. This reality is not lost on Abe, as he recently alluded in an interview with Foreign Affairs. Moreover, although the draft constitution that the LDP put forward last year does redefine Japan’s current Self-Defense Forces as a proper military, it still renounces war and the use of force to solve international disputes, as stipulated in the current constitution.

Abe would also have a hard time adopting a more hawkish line given the realities of diplomacy in Northeast Asia, including the U.S. pivot, which is largely premised on stronger cooperation between its two key allies, Japan and South Korea. The Abe government also wants to avoid any future economic shocks, similar to the one that followed the anti-Japan riots in China in 2011, which could wound his economic reforms. Abe has thus far maintained a shaky equilibrium with China and managed tensions in the East China Sea (it should also be noted that contrary to popular perception, relations with Seoul and Beijing actually deteriorated during the rule of the dovish Democratic Party of Japan -- not Abe’s).

So, rather than needlessly provoking his Chinese counterpart, Abe has sought to meet with him. Earlier this week, Abe dispatched a senior diplomat to Beijing to lay the groundwork for a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which could take place as early as in September at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Abe has also repeatedly floated the idea of a summit meeting with South Korean president Park Geun-hye, but has been rebuffed due to Seoul’s unwillingness to discuss incremental steps toward breaking the stalemate in bilateral ties. To maintain his credibility, Abe will likely avoid falling into the history trap. Already, the prime minister reportedly indicated that he will not visit the Yasukuni shrine on August 15, the day Japan surrendered in World War II.

Between Japan’s surrender in World War II and the end of the Cold War, the country’s political discourse was largely dominated by the left. During the better part of those four decades, discussion of national defense was almost taboo. Making sensible proposals on national security is necessary and legitimate, given the hostile and dynamic environment in East Asia, and it should not be misconstrued as a reversion to 1930's-style militarism. That is why it is a shame that Abe has not been given the benefit of the doubt. In reality, Abe will likely proceed with easier changes: the implementation of a U.S.-style national security council (as he told Vice President Joe Biden last week), legal allowances for collective self-defense to bolster Japan’s alliance with the United States, and a sustained retro-fit of the Self Defense Force’s amphibious capabilities to defend its remote islands.

All of these moves would not only be welcome by both the United States and the majority of Japanese citizens, but also are considerably long overdue. Contra The New York Times, they  are anything but “disturbing.” Although Abe does hold personal views on constitutional reform and historical issues -- some of them hawkish -- he also has a record of pragmatism. There is little reason to believe that he would abandon long-sought-after economic reforms in an effort to wipe out the past six decades of pacifism in Japan and push East Asia into chaos. Abe understands the boundaries and mandate created by the Japanese voters, and will use it to guide him.

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