Back to the future in Japan
December 3rd, 2012
12:43 PM ET

Back to the future in Japan

By Jeffrey W. Hornung, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

On December 16, Japan will hold elections for its House of Representatives. The current ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is expected to lose. Polls indicate the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will win the most seats, but not a majority. An LDP victory will mean the return of LDP President, and former Premier, Shinzo Abe. Unfortunately for Japan, there are reasons to be pessimistic for the Abe redux.

Abe is seen as a strong voice in Japan’s conservative camp. His past administration of 366 days over 2006-2007 was largely a failure as he focused on a conservative agenda that did little to address voters’ concerns over the economy. Instead, he promoted a jingoist concept of a Beautiful Japan, opposed amending the Imperial Household Law to allow female succession, and failed to continue the economic reforms that his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi worked hard to attain. In the end, he led his party to defeat in the House of Councilors election and abruptly resigned, citing a stomach ailment. Today, the ailment is gone and his LDP has released a 54-page document outlining policies. From this and speeches made by Abe about his vision for foreign and economic policies, it is possible to envision what an Abe Administration would look like.

Consider first foreign policy. Abe advocates stronger diplomacy that includes significant revisions in Japan’s security policies. Not only does he want to allow the exercise of collective self-defense by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF), he wants to rename the SDF the National Defense Force (with the Japanese character for ‘Force’ changed to ‘Military’) and revise the constitution to reflect that change. He also wants to create a National Security Council in the executive (to bolster the premier’s ability to respond to security challenges), strengthen Japan’s Coast Guard (to guard southwestern islands from China), and increase the defense budget (to enable Japan to respond to China). Abe also wants to take a stronger stance on territorial issues, including strengthening Japan’s control over the Senkaku Islands.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Abe is also outspoken on historical issues that carry diplomatic consequences. Not only has he questioned the validity of wartime comfort women claims (a euphemism for foreign women forced to work as prostitutes), he has also indicated a desire to review two official government positions on Japan’s wartime past. The first, the 1993 Kono Statement, contains the government’s admission and apology for the military’s involvement with comfort women. The second, the 1995 Murayama Statement, is the government’s official apology for Japan’s wartime acts. He also is unapologetic for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the souls of those who died in the building of Japan, including war criminals from World War II.

In his economic policies, Abe prioritizes Japan’s economic recovery. He indicates he will fight deflation and take measures to correct the strong yen, promising to achieve 3 percent economic growth. Specifically, he calls for bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan (BOJ) without any restrictions, setting a 2 percent inflation target. He also proposes having the BOJ directly buy government bonds to fund public works projects. Other items he advocates are caution to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), deregulation of the financial market, postponing the recently-passed consumption tax hike if the economy remains weak, and reactivating Japan’s nuclear reactors because of the negative economic consequences of nuclear power reduction.

To be fair, many of Abe’s ideas are good. Creating a National Security Council so the premier can better respond to security challenges would help reduce bureaucratic red tape. Likewise, exercising collective self-defense (now advocated by segments of both major parties) would strengthen security ties with Japan’s American ally. And strengthening the Japanese Coast Guard is indispensable given the maritime nature of the Japanese archipelago. These are practical changes meant to resolve current problems. The same is true of his desire to reactivate some of Japan’s nuclear power reactors. Given the increased need for energy imports created by the dearth in nuclear energy, Abe wants to avoid knee-jerk opposition to nuclear energy by focusing on the long-term negative implications that reduced nuclear production has on the economy.

More from GPS: Japan's rightward shift

Yet, many of Abe’s more high-profile ideas are problematic. Renaming the SDF to include the Japanese character for “military” may be calling the SDF what it really is, and stipulating its existence in the constitution does provide it legal status, but the change is more symbolic given the SDF can be written into the constitution. Instead, the ideas is part of a “settling of postwar accounts” long advocated by nationalists that will face stern opposition unless a consensus is built through through discussion in the public sphere. With Japan’s regional relations at an all time low, his decision to make a stronger push on territorial disputes while reviewing official statements on Japan’s World War II behavior will lead to a further deterioration of relations with China and South Korea. Abe’s policies will set back his predecessors’ efforts at overcoming Japan’s wartime acts and reinforce the image of Japan being unapologetic and non-reflective. Worse, it will raise tensions with Japan’s neighbors and make it difficult to conduct diplomacy on issues that require its neighbors’ involvement, such as North Korea and a free-trade agreement. His effort to make a stronger Japan could backfire, causing instead a deepening of hostilities.

Likewise, Abe’s major economic policies are reckless. Although the BOJ has been pumping money into the economy with a 1 percent inflation target, Abe’s push for unlimited monetary easing and a 2 percent target translates into pressure on the BOJ. Worse, his suggestion that the BOJ underwrite government bonds is prohibited under the Public Finance Law, a ban that was put in place after World War II. Both moves indicate his desire to reduce BOJ independence. What is more, Japan is already the second most indebted nation (Zimbabwe is first). Abe’s plan to increase defense expenditures and public works spending will make Japan even more indebted.

If investors see the BOJ lose its independence and bankroll government spending, a loss in confidence of Japan’s ability to rein in its debt will follow. Perhaps most egregious is Abe’s announcement that he may back off the tax hike his LDP helped pass and refrain from joining the TPP. Both policies are contentious but needed for Japan’s economic health. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was successful in both after hard-fought battles. Indicating his potential to renege on the tax hike is reminiscent of Abe’s softening of postal privatization reforms enacted by his predecessor. As a whole, these are reasons to question Abe’s commitment to setting Japan on a road toward economic revival.

Despite Abe’s hawkishness, some believe he will moderate once in office because he did so in 2006. Often cited is his hawkish views on history, which angered China and South Korea, but visiting these countries for his first trip and refraining from visiting Yasukuni. Yet, past precedent does not predict future behavior. Although he steered clear of Yasukuni, he has since expressed regret for that decision and visited the shrine as recently as October. Additionally, because he argues the LDP is only promoting policies that can be enacted, he risks losing credibility if he backs down on these high-visibility items.

That said, two key factors will influence Abe. The first is his LDP colleagues. A key indicator on Abe’s direction will be whether he fills cabinet positions with his close associates (like last time) that share similar opinions or party members with more mainstream opinions, which could soften his agenda. The second factor is the coalition member(s) with which he will form government. The favorite is Komeito, but it is unclear if these two parties will gain enough seats to form a government. This is where “third pole” parties become important. Currently, there are about a dozen parties fielding candidates. The small parties play off voter dissatisfaction with the established parties by focusing on one or two high visibility issues, like nuclear energy or the tax hike. If Abe chooses the Japan Restoration Party, a party founded by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and headed by Tokyo’s former governor and outspoken nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, it is an indication Abe will not soften his agenda. If, instead, he sticks with Komeito and a handful of more moderate parties, it will indicate his intention to moderate. Who he chooses with which to govern will say much about how he intends to govern.

Japan faces real problems, ranging from a stagnant economy, disaster reconstruction, territorial disputes, North Korea, demographic collapse, and an uncertain energy future. Japanese voters need a vision from its leaders with concrete specifics on how these will be resolved. While some of Abe’s ideas touch on these issues, many of his proposals are either empty jingoistic shells of ideas or simply do not address the problems. There is no harm in advocating policies to secure Japan both economically and militarily, but because countries do not exist in autarky, Japan needs to maintain good economic and diplomatic relations with the world. Many of Abe’s policies do the opposite. It is because of this that it will not be a surprise if only one year hence, the discussion shifts to Abe’s successor.

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Topics: Elections • Japan

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Jennifer

    " largely a failure as he focused on a conservative agenda that did little to address voters’ concerns over the economy. "

    sums up every Conservative agenda everywhere, ever!

    December 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • petercha

      Hate much, Jennifer? And yet you liberals constantly preach love and tolerance. Liberalism: Hypocrisy at its finest.

      December 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
      • sybaris

        So tolerating a lack of voters concerns over the economy would be a good thing. Got it.

        December 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Quigley

      Well said Jennifer, except that the J apanese need to quit taking orders from Washington D.C. and become far more self assertive than they currently are! They need to stop catering to the West and work on their own economy. In fact, they should have a government similar to what they had before WW2 instead of these self styled liberals who are too busy trying to please the West!

      December 4, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Indeed, Shinzo Abe would be more of burden than benefit for J apan. No doubt his high-profile political family is an asset. He had a former foreign minister as father. His grandfather was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a suspected war criminal after World War II but never charged. Yet he lost touch with reality on the ground. During his tenure, he called for a greater sense of national pride and backed a law requiring the teaching of patriotism in schools. But most damaging to Abe was the revelation that over the years the government lost pension records affecting about 50 million claims.

    December 4, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply

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