For years, it has been a matter of common agreement that what Japan needs, above all, is a strong leader. Now, for better or worse, it is about to get one.
Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faces the electorate tomorrow in upper house elections. Assuming it does as well as expected, his coalition government will consolidate its already considerable power by gaining a two-thirds majority in both houses of the parliament. That would allow Abe, whose support rating is in the bubbly mid-60s, to enact legislation far more easily than any of his recent predecessors.
Just as important, a decisive victory will put an end to Japan’s seemingly boundless procession of prime ministers, who have come and gone more rapidly — though with far less impact — than passing typhoons. There have been seven leaders in the past seven years and 14 in the past 20. If he wins big tomorrow, Abe will probably go unchallenged until the next scheduled election in 2016. That would make him by far the strongest prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi, the maverick who electrified Japan and intrigued foreign investors during his almost six-year term from 2001.
In fact, Abe may prove a more potent force than Koizumi for two reasons. First, their party — though not without its factional and ideological infighting — is firmly behind its leader after three years in unfamiliar opposition. Second, for better or worse, Abe is more of a conviction politician than Koizumi, whose showmanship over such issues as postal privatisation led many to believe he was more radical than he actually was. Abe draws his motivation from a deep well of conservatism, some would say unreconstructed nationalism. That is the fount of ‘Abenomics’, a radical departure in monetary (and possibly supply-side) policy aimed at restoring economic vigour, and with it “greatness”, to Japan.
All this gives Abe something of the zeal of a born-again convert. Should we be scared? Now that Japan finally has the powerful leader it has sought, might he steer it over an economic cliff or dabble in dangerously nationalistic waters?
On the economy, the answer is no. Certainly, ‘Abenomics’ is not without risk. Going hell-for-leather for inflation could have unintended consequences, such as causing runaway prices or problems at banks whose balance sheets are stuffed with bonds. Yet, it is a risk worth taking. Japan badly needs to shake off a 15-year deflationary funk that, though it has helped preserve incomes, has sapped the economy of animal spirits and eroded public finances. In the realm of the economy, not everything Abe does will be right, but having an effective champion of a bold policy is on balance a good thing.
On the matter of social policy and Japan’s posture towards its neighbours, there is more to worry about. Abe’s impulse to “normalise” the nation may be understandable. After all, it is virtually alone among nations where the idea of singing the national anthem, having soldiers or commemorating one’s war dead is controversial at home and abroad. Abe’s method of addressing this, however, has a nasty tinge, embracing as it does an impulse to airbrush history and to restore some elements of an imperialist ideology that got Japan into trouble in the first place. Yet even here, there are reasons to believe that civil society is a reliable safeguard against any dangerous lurch to the right.
Take two examples. Abe has made no secret of his ambition to rewrite a constitution, imposed on Japan after its 1945 defeat. He would like to reinstate the sovereign right to possess armed forces — forbidden by the pacifist Article Nine. He also wants to roll back some of the “foreign” parts of the constitution, such as those sidelining the emperor or placing the sanctity of human rights above the interests of the state. Yet, he is unlikely to get far. Most Japanese remain attached to Article Nine if only because it has kept them safe for so long. They are also suspicious of attempts to water down the constitution’s progressive elements. Abe has had to back away from a plan he floated to make revision easier.
Something else Abe aspires to is to tinker with an apology made to young women — including many Koreans — coerced into sexual slavery during the Second World War. His stance is that terrible things happen in war and Japan should not be singled out for recrimination. Yet that, too, is very unlikely to succeed. Even the LDP, more conservative than the population at large, knows that any such move will stir huge diplomatic problems, not only with Japan’s Asian neighbours but with its US ally. Unless Abe really loses his head, such official forays into revisionism will not occur.
Diplomatically, there is one big advantage to having a strong prime minister. Love him or loathe him, his foreign counterparts know he is someone with whom they can do business. Alone among recent leaders he is liable to stick around long enough to see agreements through. That is worth its weight in gold.