Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Revenge”: Priorities and Challenges for Japan’s New Government


DateWednesday, January 30, 2013

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Revenge”: Priorities and Challenges for Japan’s New Government from Stimson Center on Vimeo.

On December 26, 2012, Shinzo Abe, who became the prime minister in 2006 only to resign in 2007, returned to the premiership. A new Diet session opened on January 28, 2013. Since his inauguration, the non-Japanese media has focused on Abe's return in the context of a possible rise of nationalism and strained regional relations. But Abe's policy speech to the Diet on January 28 - three-quarters of which was spent on how to revitalize Japanese economy - indicates that Abe's government in fact faces challenges that are far more complex.

On January 30th, Stimson's Japan program and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Asia Program co-hosted a panel discussion entitled "Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "Revenge": Priorities for Japan's New Government." The panel featured four bureau chiefs of Japan's major media outlets - Akio Fujii (Nikkei Newspaper), Hideomi Kinoshita (Kyodo News), Sumiko Mori (Fuji Television) and Gaku Shibata (Yomirui Shimbun) - who have closely followed developments in Japan. They opened the discussion by sharing their perspectives of the new Abe government, his policy priorities for the coming year, and the potential challenges he faces ahead.

Mr. Fujii of Nikkei opened the panel discussion, by discussing the much-talked "Abenomics." He suggested that the proposed initiatives are very similar to the measures that his predecessors in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have used to stimulate the economy - directing the government's funds to public works such as road construction.
Fujii acknowledged that these initiatives would inject more money into the economy and increase optimism, which may incentivize corporations to create employment and increase investments. Still, he proposed that deeper structural reforms are necessary if Japan is to achieve sustainable economic growth." He suggested that if the Abe government does not take bold measures to reform the economy, particularly after the Upper House election, the current optimism will quickly fade and lead to disappointment. (Please click here for his presentation slides)

Fujii's presentation was followed by Ms. Mori of Fuji Television, who identified the following factors for Abe's failure between 2006-2007:
(1) nepotism: Abe's cabinet ministers during his first tenure were ridiculed as "cabinet of friends" (otomodachi naikaku) many of whom were close personal friends of Abe but lack the qualifications for their positions.
(2) less-than-thorough background checks of the cabinet members, which led to a few "scandals" over extramarital affair and/or corruption
(3) public's inflated expectation of Abe
(4) frequent verbal gaffes by many of the cabinet members, and
(5) Abe's deteriorating health,
as the main reasons for Abe's fall from power in 2007. She suggested that the political atmosphere is more favorable for Abe this time around - the public has a more realistic expectation of him and his government, and Abe so far has demonstrated that he had learned from his past failures (as demonstrated in his selection of cabinet members and LDP leadership). She did caution that his health, despite his assertion that he has "fully recovered," remains a concern, as his ailment is chronic in nature and often triggered by stress (please click here for her presentation slides.)

Mr. Shibata of the Yomiuri Shimbun discussed Abe's immediate policy challenges for the next six months in the context of the anticipated major political events in Japan. He suggested that Abe will have no choice but to take a very cautious approach in all policy areas, until he secures a LDP-Komeito (junior coalition partner) majority in the Upper House election in July 2013. He argued that, despite the LDP's landslide victory in the December 2012 Lower House election, Abe is still somewhat in campaign mode - he pointed to Abe's policy address to the Diet on January 28 in support of his argument. Shibata also agreed with Fujii regarding the possibility of Abe quickly losing public support if his government cannot offer a vision and pragmatic steps to revitalize Japanese economy and achieve sustainable growth. He also suggested that the real challenge for Abe will begin after the Upper House election, as the issues that need to be addressed - Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan's right of collective self-defense, structural reform of Japanese economy, administrative reform to enhance executive authority of the prime minister - are all politically difficult and risky for Abe to address. As background information, Shibata provided materials, which included the Japanese political calendar for the next six months, the current composition of the Diet, major political parties' public approval ratings, Abe's key goals in economic policy, the list of his cabinet members and LDP leadership and the issues that are of immediate concern in the context of US-Japan relations.

Mr. Kinoshita of Kyodo News wrapped up the presentation by the panel. Kinoshita focused on Abe's foreign policy, and identified US-Japan relations, Japan-ROK relations, and Japan-China relations, and North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens as Abe's foreign policy priorities. He pointed to Abe dispatching Fukushiro Nukaga, the LDP's senior politician and former defense minister, to the ROK and sending Natsuo Yamaguchi, Komeito's party leader, to China as signs of Abe's willingness to reach out to Seoul and Beijing. He also think that Abe is likely to refrain from inflammatory remarks that could further complicate Japan's diplomatic relations with these two countries. However, Kinoshita suggested that any further provocation in the Senkaku Island area, or nuclear test in North Korea, could put Abe into a position in which he has to respond strongly.

Following the presentations by the panelists, Mr. James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment, the event's co-host, shared his views. Schoff agreed with the panelists that Abe would most likely remain cautious in his policy and legislative agenda until he secures the Upper House election victory for the LDP and Komeito. He stressed that Abe should be thoughtful regarding the prioritization of his agenda and the sequence in which he pushes for them. He raised the revisions of some of the fundamental principles in Japanese security policy and the educational reform as the example. He argued that if Abe pursues educational reform (or any other conservative social agenda) at the same time he pushes the constitutional revision, it could trigger very negative reactions from Beijing and Seoul, which would potentially have a negative impact on Japan's relations with the United States.

During the Q&A portion of the event, questions from the audience focused on Japan's participation in the TPP and Japan-China relations, particularly with regard to the rising tension over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.