Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s resignation has come as a shock to most people in the West. However, those who follow Japan’s politics closely and among the political and media elite of Japan have not found it unexpected, writes Vidya S. Sharma.
Japan is one of the most important allies of the West, especially the US. Further, Japan is in that part of the world where the US dominance is most at risk or rather it has lost its dominance and is seen to be in retreat. Therefore, it is important to appreciate what Abe’s resignation means to the security of the West.
Abe is widely labelled as a conservative politician pursuing nationalist policies with a preference for a revisionist version of recent Japanese history. Expression of such views can be seen both in his domestic and foreign policy decisions during both of his tenures as Prime Minister.
I believe that this label does not describe either his politics or Abe as a person adequately. I would call him a pragmatic and realist politician.
Before I discuss his achievements, failures and his legacy, let me mention a little bit about the man himself.
Shinzo Abe – A man with a political pedigree
Shinzo Abe — or rather Abe Shinzo, as on September 2019, Japan, under Abe, reverted to the traditional order for Japanese names where the family name is written first — has a very distinguished political pedigree.
His father, Shintaro Abe, was Foreign Minister of Japan from 1982 to 1986. Abe Shinzo is a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi (on his mother’s side) who, after the surrender of Japan, was arrested for war crimes but the US Government never charged nor tried to convict him. He was released and later Kishi served as Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960.
Abe Shinzo’s paternal grandfather was Kan Abe (son of a soy sauce brewer and landlord) served as a member of the House of Representatives (= lower house or Diet) from 1937 to 1946. Kan Abe was a popular politician in his time and was well known for his anti-war policies and criticizing the militaristic policies of the Imperial government.
At the age of 52, when Abe first became Prime Minister in 2006, he was not only the youngest post-war Prime Minister but also the first to have been born after World War II. His first term lasted exactly 366.
On November 20, 2019, Abe Shinzo became the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Japan’s constitutional government, at 2,887 days. He surpassed the record held by Prime Minister (Prince) Katsura Tarō.
Just before Abe’s resignation, on 24 August, 2020, Abe Shinzo became the Prime Minister with the most consecutive days in office. But instead of celebrating 2,799 consecutive days in office, he was in a Tokyo hospital because of the relapse of ulcerative colitis. He announced his intention to resign the following Saturday.
After he resigned in 2007, he was widely written off both in Japanese and Western media. Officially, he resigned because he was diagnosed as suffering from ulcerative colitis (the same illness that brought about his resignation this time).
During his first stint as a PM, lasting only 366 days, 5 of his ministers resigned for being embroiled in one or another scandal. Additionally, one minister suicided.
Abe Shinzo was also criticised for acting too slowly on the Social Insurance
Agency’s mishandling of millions of lost pension records in 2007.
As a result, under his leadership, the LDP suffered a heavy defeat in the upper house elections. He was widely written off after leading a scandal-prone short-lived administration. Yet he reclaimed the leadership of the LDP in 2012.
Though Abe, like his predecessor, Koizumi, believed in the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance but during his first stint as PM, the relationship suffered as there was a political deadlock in Japan on the question of providing logistical support to the US for its invasion of Afghanistan.
But Abe can claim some foreign policy successes too. He emphasized “value-based diplomacy” (kachikan gaiko) and he succeeded in improving Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. To stress the importance of Sino-Japan relationship, the first overseas country Abe visited was China which was the first for a post-war Japanese prime minister.
His conservative policies are captured in two slogans coined by him: Japan is a “beautiful country” (also the title of his book) and “breaking away from the post-war regime” (sengo rejiimu kara no dakkyaku).
During his first stint as PM, he passed several education-related legislations that collectively emphasized the importance of loving one’s country, birthplace, having respect for traditional Japanese culture and the need to inculcate a civic spirit of helping others (kokyo seishin).
Japan’s ‘Self-Defence Agency’ was upgraded to the Ministry of Defence. The legislation also allowed its defence forces to be deployed overseas for self-defence, peacekeeping and to carry the kind of logistical support Japan provided to the US forces in the Middle East.
Abe Shinzo also passed a law for conducting constitutional referendum for the first time in post-war Japan.
To an outsider, such changes may give an impression that Abe was merely trying to make Japan a normal country by removing provisions that had been added to its post-war constitution at the behest of the US. But, it must be emphasized that there was little public support for such measures. In other words, Abe may have brought about these legislative changes but failed to generate public support for them.
Changed Economic and Security Environment
Abe Shinzo reclaimed the leadership of the LDP (therefore the Prime Ministership of Japan) in 2012. The economic and security environment that Japan faced in 2012 was very different from what it faced in 2006-07.
The Japanese economy was in the doldrums. Japan was suffering from a drop in exports and consumer demand, while China was enjoyed a manufacturing boom. Consequently, China had overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2011.
Similarly on the security front, one could foresee that Washington’s ability to indefinitely maintain the uncontested military superiority (that it enjoyed in the immediate aftermath at the end of the Cold War) was coming to an end, virtually in every domain: land, sea, and air.
The world was not “unipolar” anymore. It was becoming multipolar: with Russia, China, India, North Korea, and other countries were developing capabilities to project military power. The world was entering an era of interdependence and competition.
It was clear that increasing prosperity was not leading to greater democratization nor any semblance of rule of law in China.
China and Russia were in the process of developing what are now described as anti-access/area-denial weapons systems.
The US still enjoyed some superiority in outer space and cyberspace. Given how quickly diffusion of technology was taking place and how rapidly countervailing technologies were developing, it was clear the US would lose its ability to operate uncontestably in those spheres too.
The US-Japan relationship also had to be ready for any disruptive shock that President Trump might administer.
In 2012 Abe came to power on the promise of reviving the economy.
To inject some growth into the economy, Abe followed an aggressive stimulatory economic policy. This policy mainly comprised of a three-pronged attack on the economy. These have collectively come to be known as “Abenomics”.
To revive Japan’s economy that has been stagnating for nearly two decades, he took three steps: (a) hyper-easy monetary policy; (b) massive fiscal stimulus and most importantly, structural reforms to unshackle business from regulatory burdens and labour liberalisation.
For the first 2-3 years, the policy worked. It then became ineffective for two reasons: (a) serious structural reforms were never carried out; and (b) under the influence of the Department of Treasury, Abe reluctantly introduced consumption in 2019. This hit the demand badly and forced the economy into a downward spiral.
Further, hyper-easy monetary policy over-leveraged the economy to the extent of creating a risk of sovereign bankruptcy. This meant that confidence in capital markets declined. As the economy struggled to recover, the COVID -19 pandemic hit it hard.
In short, under Abenomics, fund managers, especially hedge fund managers, did very well, the ordinary person, on the other hand, did not benefit much.
Despite these setbacks, it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Abenomics. It is worth remembering that when the Federal Reserve’s President Jerome Powell said last month that he would be willing to overshoot 2% inflation as part of supporting the economy, he was following a component of Abenomics. Similarly to prevent the economy from a further contraction, the Reserve Bank of Australia has chosen to follow the same approach as have the central banks in many other countries.
Abe did have some success to overhaul corporate regulatory environment. To solve the problem of an ageing population and shortage of workforce (and also because of the resistance within the LDP to open the country to skilled migration), Abe tried to — with some success — to increase the participation of women in the workforce. It still remains low in comparison to Western countries.
Japan comes out of its shell
After the US — under the leadership of Donald Trump — pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP), this agreement could not be ratified by other participating countries.
Abe assumed leadership of the remaining 11 countries (including Japan). It resulted in a new agreement called, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This agreement contains most features of the TPP and came into effect on 30 December 2018.
To take a lead of any group and especially on a trade agreement was a new role for Japan.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a trading agreement, though not as ambitious as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It comprises all ten ASEAN members and five Asia Pacific countries namely, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan.
Again it was Japan, under Abe’s leadership, led the negotiations. India was supposed to be the sixteenth member of this group. Unfortunately, it pulled out of the negotiations under pressure from its manufacturing lobby. The latter feared its members may not be able to compete with more modern manufacturing facilities and a better-skilled workforce of other countries in the group. Japan was very disappointed with India’s withdrawal as Japan saw in India a reliable ally and a counterweight to China that will work with Japan to push back China’s aggressive economic agenda within the RCEP.
By taking lead in these trade agreements, Abe was not only positioning Japan as a champion of free trade or trade liberalization, but Japan was deepening ties with participating countries to improve its security environment: it was offering itself as a counterweight to China (known for bullying its neighbours).
Perhaps, his best foreign policy achievement was that he was the only leader who found Trump’s measure and was able to maintain the US-Japan relationship on an even keel.
Abe also signed a bilateral trade agreement with the US after the latter pulled out of the TTP.
Under Abe relations with China also improved. President Xi Jinping was due to make a return visit to Tokyo but his visit was indefinitely postponed after Beijing passed a draconian security law which took away most freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong.
On the negative side, under Abe’s helm, Japan’s relations with South Korea, historically always strained due to Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula, deteriorated further.
In summary, Abe pushed Japan to assert its influence in global affairs that was commensurate with its economic status.
LIVING IN A ROGUE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Japan has three rogue neighbours who do not behave as per accepted international norms. It has border disputes with Russia and China. The latter has land borders with 14 countries and maritime borders with 5. It has a border dispute with 18 of them (Pakistan, its satellite state, being the sole exception).
The Senkaku Islands are a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Their ownership is disputed. Japan claims ownership of these islands and calls them the Senkaku Islands. Both China and Taiwan also claim them. China calls them the Diaoyu Islands. In Taiwan, they are called the Tiaoyutai or Diaoyutai Islands. China, on a very regular basis, makes incursions into Japanese maritime borders.
Japan also has a maritime border with Russia. It is in dispute with Russia about ownership of four Kuril Islands which the USSR (predecessor of modern Russia) annexed at the end of World War II.
North Korea is another pertinacious and truculent neighbour. It not only owns nuclear weapons. It possesses missiles capable of reaching as far as the US. In the last few years, North Korea has tested several missiles that invaded Japan’s airspace. Japan also accuses North Korea to have abducted its citizens during the Cold War. In fact, this was the issue, that Abe Shinzo became famous for before being chosen as leader of the LDP in 2006.
IMPROVING JAPAN’S SECURITY ENVIRONMENT
Abe has taken several steps towards improving the security of Japan. Perhaps, the most significant of them his effort to reform and reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.
Article 9 was added to the Japanese constitution at the insistence of the US after World War II. It enshrines constitutional pacifism in Japan. It states “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”
Every Japanese is taught about the destruction and human suffering that two atom bombs caused in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Consequently, this clause very popular with ordinary people in Japan.
The revision of Article 9 has been one of the goals of all right-wing nationalist politicians in Japan. For the last two decades, the US has also been encouraging Japan to amend this clause: the other side of Article 9 is that the US must forever stand as a guarantor of Japan’s territorial security.
Abe could see that the security environment around Japan was becoming increasingly more threatening. He also knew he would not succeed in convincing Japanese people to amend Article 9. China, North Korea and South Korea also did not want any amendment to be made to Article 9 (especially because Japan has also not properly apologized for the brutality the Imperial Japanese Army perpetrated on them after occupation).
In July 2014, Abe circumvented Japanese laws and approved a reinterpretation of Article 9. This gave more powers to the Self-Defense Forces. This move was supported by the US, much to the disappointment of Japan’s North Asian neighbours.
Abe Shinzo also increased the defence budget and reached out to other Asian countries to counter China. In this respect, his most significant move was to reach out to India.
It was Abe who first conceived the construction of a coalition of four Asia-Pacific democracies (ie, Japan, Australia and India) in partnership the US to improve the security environment in this region (as a counterweight to China and North Korea).
He conceived and formalized QUAD or Quadrilateral groups — a group of above-named four countries to conduct joint defence exercises and share each other’s defence facilities for repair and replenishment of provisions as well as to equip them for better military-to-military cooperation. This is another idea of Abe that would outlive him.
When in mid-June China made an incursion into the Indian territory of Eastern Ladakh which resulted in the killing more 20 Indian soldiers, the Japanese ambassador to India strongly supported India, tweeting that “Japan opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo.
Challenges facing his successor
Anybody who succeeds Abe Shinzo (it seems most likely that Abe’s loyal supporter and chief cabinet secretary, Suga Yoshihide, would succeed him) would face a difficult situation on several fronts: COVID 19 pandemic, an economy in deep recession, an aggressive China not hesitant to use its military might to resolve international disputes in its favour, a belligerent North Korea that is not interested in nuclear disarmament, a revanchist Russia which is arming its defence forces with new generation conventional and nuclear weapons, and above all debt-ridden and increasingly isolationist US which is in retreat in Asia-Pacific and whose dominance is challenged in domains.
Abe’s has demonstrated that Japan can lead and play a meaningful role in shaping the international order. The security architecture that he has put in place will outlive him. The harsh reality of Japan’s neighbourhood is such that whoever succeeds him will be forced to follow Abe’s foreign and defence policy agenda.
Unlike conservative politicians, on the social front, Abe tried to increase the participation of women in the workforce. He also tried to bring about a better balance between work and life (ie, reduce the amount of overtime done by an ordinary Japanese worker) and encouraged more equitable wages for young workers.
Abe once said: “I’m a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, so everyone thinks of me as an adamantly conservative politician. But I’m also a grandson of Kan Abe. I think about things from the standpoint of both a hawk and a dove.”
I think he described himself very aptly.
Vidya S. Sharma advises clients on country risks and technology-based joint ventures. He has contributed many articles for such prestigious newspapers as: EU Reporter, The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Australian Financial Review, The Economic Times (India), The Business Standard (India), The Business Line (Chennai, India), The Hindustan Times (India), The Financial Express (India), The Daily Caller (US). He can be contacted at: [email protected]