Where will Abe lead Japan?

Posted in Japan | 29-Sep-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki

The country’s youngest post-war prime minister inaugurates his “nation-building Cabinet”

"Abe apparently has a strong desire to become the "Creator" in due course"
"Abe apparently has a strong desire to become the "Creator" in due course"
Shinzo Abe, a nationalist chief cabinet secretary and advocate of a more “assertive” foreign policy, has been elected Japan’s new prime minister to succeed Junichiro Koizumi and has immediately inaugurated his new Cabinet.

On the strength of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition’s majority in both houses of the Diet – Japan’s parliament -- Abe garnered 339 votes out of 475 counted in the powerful Lower House, and 136 ballots out of 240 in the Upper House, in the election on Sept.26. Abe unveiled the lineup of his new Cabinet later that day, which include many close aides. While following Koizumi’s policy of forming his team without being influenced by intra-party factions, Abe apparently gave more consideration than his predecessor to factional power balance.

Abe, 52, is the youngest politician to take the helm of the government since the end of World War II. He is also the first premier born after the war. His rise to the top government post marks a new turning point for Japanese politics. Abe gave his first news conference as premier on the night of Sept.26 after an attestation ceremony for his Cabinet at the Imperial Palace. Naming his new administration the 'nation-building Cabinet,' Abe said he wants Japan to revive family values, be proud of its identity and take leadership in international affairs.

The Abe government faces the daunting tasks of addressing the two negative legacies of his predecessor: to mend relations with Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea, which have been strained by Koizumi’s repeated visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine and to narrow a widening wealth gap among Japanese as a result of Koizumi’s market-oriented reforms while maintaining the current economic recovery, which followed a decade-long slump.

Abe pledged to bolster the economy, plow ahead with structural reform and pursue better relations with China and the rest of Asia. 'I will accelerate and enhance structural reforms,' Abe said. “I will aim for a growing economy.' On relations with China and South Korea, Abe insisted, however, that efforts be made on both sides. “'Japan's door is always open and it is not us who have been refusing summit talks,' Abe said. 'I would like to make efforts but hope the two countries will also take a step forward.'

Retained Foreign Minister Taro Aso said the government will be working towards holding summit talks with China. Beijing and Seoul on Tuesday reacted cautiously to Abe's election, calling for the new Japanese government to take steps to improve relations. Seoul said it hopes Abe will "refrain from behavior" that might cause trouble with Japan's neighbors.

While expressing a strong desire to repair damaged relations with the important Asian neighbors, Abe stands firm in pursuing his nationalist and hawkish political goals that will certainly make the neighbors frown in displeasure. Abe’s declared goals include, among other things, giving Japan a greater military role abroad through such means as a revision of the post-war, pacifist constitution.

Appointment of close aides

Abe named close ally and senior vice foreign minister, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 55, as Chief Cabinet Secretary and minister in charge of the issue of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals. It is quite unusual for a premier to pick a lawmaker from a different intra-party faction for the post of top government spokesman, which has often been dubbed the “wife of the prime minister.”

Abe retained Foreign Minister Aso, 66, who was the runner-up in the LDP presidential race, and appointed veteran LDP lawmaker Fumio Kyuma, 65, as Defense Agency chief. Aso shares similar conservative and hawkish views, especially on history and security, with Abe. Kyuma is known as an expert on Japan-U.S. defense cooperation. He had held the defense portfolio before.

Abe, who has been rather vague with his economic policies during his leadership campaign, filled his Cabinet with members well-versed in financial and economic issues, such as naming Koji Omi, 73, a senior LDP lawmaker and former trade ministry official, as finance minister. Former labor minister Akira Amari, 57, became minister of economy, trade and industry, while Abe's follower, Yuji Yamamoto, 54, became financial services minister.

Only two females were named in the 17-member Cabinet, with Sanae Takaichi, 45, becoming minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories issues, and former Cabinet Office bureaucrat Hiroko Ota, 52, the only non-parliamentarian minister, becoming minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, the post once held by Heizo Takenaka, an economic czar under Koizumi.

Abe also demonstrated his intention to pursue a stronger, White House-style Prime Minister’s Office. He established five new posts of prime ministerial advisors in charge of important issues to strengthen functions of the Prime Minister’s Office. Among those appointed was Kyoko Nakayama, a former special adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat, who takes charge of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens. Yuriko Koike, environment minister under Koizumi, became a national security advisor. With the aim of establishing a U.S.-style National Security Council in Japan, Abe intends to strengthen the function of the existing Security Council of Japan to push forward security and diplomatic policies led by the Prime Minister's Office.

The Abe government immediately declared that the prime minister -- not the powerful bureaucracy -- would direct policy. "The Prime Minister's Office should be strengthened as the control center for the whole state," said Shiozaki. "The office will put forward policies based on strategic thinking."

Abe allocated one slot to the LDP’s junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, by naming Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, 70, as minister of land, infrastructure and transport. The New Komeito party is backed by Japan's largest lay-Buddhist group Soka Gakkai. The party's new leader-elect Akihiro Ota praised Abe's new Cabinet for having a good age balance comprising both young and veteran lawmakers. But the composition of the Abe team drew immediate criticism from some that he picked those who strongly supported him in his successful LDP presidential bid.

Apparently in a bid to secure a free hand in specific policy implementation, Abe has so far kept his rhetoric largely short on details, albeit full of pomp. Still, Abe has made it clear that he will pursue an ultra-conservative, nationalistic and pro-US political and foreign-policy agenda. He has called for a “departure from the post-war regime” by revising the pacifist constitution, among other things. Critics say his telegenic appearance and soft-spokenness mask Abe’s hard line in the eyes of not a few Japanese.

Abe’s election as the new prime minister in the Diet followed his landslide victory in the LDP presidential election on Sept.20. Koizumi stepped down with the expiry of his second term as the LDP president -- and hence as prime minister. Abe is relatively new to politics, and there are some concerns that he lacks the badly needed experience and leadership to steer the country through difficult times. His previous role, Chief Cabinet Secretary, was his first cabinet ministerial post, which was given, apparently because Koizumi wanted to groom him as his successor. Koizumi, Abe’s mentor, left the Prime Minister's Office in the morning of Sept.26 to cheers, holding a bouquet of roses. In a parting statement, Koizumi called for continued reforms under the new administration, saying, 'The sprout of reform is growing into a big tree.'

Earlier on Sept.25, Abe formed his LDP leadership. He appointed former Chief Cabinet Secretary and his close aide, Hidenao Nakagawa, 62, as the LDP secretary general, the No. 2 party post. Abe also named former health and welfare minister Yuya Niwa, 62, as chairman of the party's decision-making General Council, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, 53, as chairman of the Policy Research Council. Former transport minister Nobuteru Ishihara, a 49-year-old son of Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, was named as acting party secretary general. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai, 67, became the Diet Affairs Committee chairman. Nikai’s role will be to deal with the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, making use of his experience as a former close ally to DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa.

New LDP Secretary General Nakagawa is a close ally of Abe's from the same faction to which Abe belonged, breaking the LDP tradition of naming a secretary general from a different faction from that of the party president. Abe nominally left the faction after being elected the LDP president, as previous party presidents – and hence premiers -- customarily did.

The faction, chaired by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, is the largest party group, followed by a faction once led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. This second-largest faction, now led by former welfare minister Yuji Tsushima, failed to send its member to the top LDP leadership this time, underscoring Abe’s declared policy of making party and cabinet appointments without being shacked by factional power balance, just as his predecessor did, but at the same time sowing the seeds of a possible disunity within the party.

Having headed the LDP's Diet Affairs Committee and Policy Research Council, Hidenao Nakagawa has supported Koizumi's structural reforms and has good contacts with other party members. Abe apparently appointed Nakagawa as the new LDP secretary general to give the impression that the reform policy of Koizumi will continue. New LDP policy chief Nakagawa shares Abe's hawkish views on Japan's wartime history. Nakagawa is also a vocal proponent of a hard line toward China on the simmering dispute over gas reserves in the East China Sea.

Conflicting policy goals

"Abe wants to repair ties with China and South Korea"
"Abe wants to repair ties with China and South Korea"
Abe faces multiple policy dilemmas. He has vowed to pull out all the stops to repair ties with China and South Korea. But he has so far failed to come up with an effective avenue to reach that goal. Instead, his nationalist and hawkish stance will certainly alarm and make uneasy China and South Korea.

Abe’s declared policy goals include, among other things, giving Japan a greater military role abroad through such means as a revision of the post-war, pacifist constitution and amendments to the basic education law, which conservatives criticize as putting too much emphasis on individual freedom at the expense of love for the state and respect for the public interests, traditional culture and values.

These goals, coupled with Abe’s nationalist views on history, hawkish stance on such countries as China and firm support for the Yasukuni Shrine, will stoke concerns among Asian neighbors, especially China and South Korea. Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul remain strained by territorial rows, disputes over natural resources and differences over World War II history, as well as by Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, along with some 2.5 million war dead, and is widely seen outside of Japan as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.

The current constitution, drafted by the US occupation forces immediately after Japan's defeat in World War II, has never been altered. Article 9 is widely interpreted as forbidding the possession of a military. Although, in reality, Japan has about 240,000 troops of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and one of the world's biggest defense expenditures, successive governments have explained away the contradiction by claiming that SDF is not a military. Article 9 renounces the use or threat of force as a means of settling international conflicts and forbids the maintenance of a standing military.

Abe has said he will seek to have constitutional amendments realized within five years. It remains to be seen, however, if the supreme law can be revised while he is in office -- possibly up to six years if he is reelected for a second three-year term as LDP president and hence as premier three years from now. Under Article 96, any amendments must be proposed with support of a two-thirds or more of both houses of the Diet and then be approved in a national referendum with a simple majority vote. Legislation setting procedures for such a referendum is still pending in the Diet. Although the coalition between the LDP and New Komeito party commands more than a two-third majority in the 480-seat Lower House following a landslide victory in the general election about a year ago, it is still far short of a two-thirds majority in the less powerful Upper House.

Abe has also made clear his intention to put education reform, including an early Diet passage of a bill to revise the basic education law, high on his political agenda. The LDP had aimed to enact the controversial bill, which seeks to instill 'patriotism' in Japanese students, during the previous Diet session but failed due partly to strong opposition from the opposition camp.

Abe is a political blue-blood, with his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi serving as prime minister and his father Shintaro Abe serving as foreign minister. Revising the constitution is a political goal Kishi aimed for -- but could not reach -- in the 1950s, shortly after Japan regained independence with the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty. Abe has called for a "departure from the postwar regime.” During the LDP presidential campaign, Abe referred to himself as belonging to a "generation born after the conclusion of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.” He said, “I am not bound by the preconceived notion that the decisions made at the time [of the Allied Occupation] are unalterable. I believe in charting an ideal path on our own."

Despite his repeated pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine, Koizumi has said Japan’s invasion of Asia in the early 20th century was wrong. But Abe is believed by many to be embracing a revisionist view of World War II that does not see it as a war of aggression waged by Japan. Abe steers clear of calling Japan's actions unjust war and has questioned whether Japan needs to keep apologizing, saying such judgments are best left to historians. Kishi, Abe’s grandfather on his mother’s side, was appointed commerce and industry minister in 1941 by then Prime Minister Tojo, a post he kept until Japan’s World War II surrender. Kishi was imprisoned as a Class-A war criminal, like Tojo, although he was never tried. Abe is seen as critical of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal. Abe also supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on Japanese atrocities and aggression.

Infuriated by Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, China and South Korea had shunned summit talks with him since last year. As a condition for resumed summit talks, the two Asian neighbors have called for Abe to refrain from paying homage at the Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Abe himself made a secret visit to Yasukuni in April, although he has refused to confirm it. Abe has vowed he will not say whether he has visited or will visit the shrine while in office.

Japanese foreign-policy makers hope to arrange summit talks between Abe and top Chinese and South Korean leaders during a meeting of leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hanoi in November or, if possible, Abe’s visits to the two Asian neighbors at earlier dates. Momentum has been building for such a meeting. Japan and China held vice-ministerial talks in late September, and Aso met on Sept.25 with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Tokyo.

Abe has also expressed a desire to depart from successive Japanese governments’ constitutional interpretation of the nation’s right to collective self-defense -- the right to come to the aid of an ally in case it comes under attack from a third country..

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the constitutional watchdog within the government, has long held a firm view that Japan has the right to collective self-defense but is not allowed to exercise it under the current constitution. This constitutional interpretation has put severe restrictions on the SDF's activities abroad, often frustrating the US. Like his predecessors, Koizumi stretched the boundaries of the constitution, including deploying non-combat SDF troops to Iraq, the first SDF mission to a combat zone after the end of World War II.

Early last year, Japan and the US agreed to make ensuring peace on the Taiwan Strait one of their common security goals. This has highly alarmed Beijing, which still regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunified with the mainland, even by force if necessary.

Abe also wants to further strengthen a security alliance with the US, which was significantly solidified under Koizumi through the overseas dispatch of Japanese troops to assist the US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abe has also advocated a thinly-veiled alliance of democracies among the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China, a rapidly ascending military power, in the Asia-Pacific region. In the just-convened extraordinary Diet session, the Abe government will seek approval of bills to upgrade the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry and extend, for another year, the dispatch of naval ships to the Indian Ocean to supply fuel to warships of the US and other countries engaged in Afghan operations.

Need for cooperation

"Abe's hard line toward Pyongyang has earned him high public popularity"
"Abe's hard line toward Pyongyang has earned him high public popularity"
Some of Abe’s declared political and economic goals will only be achieved if Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are put back on track.

Abe, a staunch advocate of a bigger say for Japan in global affairs, has made winning a permanent seat on the UN Security Council one of his priority tasks. But this Japanese bid will only be realized if Beijing does not oppose it. China is one of the five current permanent council members with veto powers. The other four are the US, Russia, Britain and France. Still vivid in the memories of many Japanese is an anti-Japan riot that swept through China in the spring of 2005 over Tokyo’s bid for permanent council membership.

Abe’s hard line toward Pyongyang, especially over the issue of past North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, has earned him high public popularity in Japan, enabling him to take the helm of the LDP and government much earlier than he himself could expect when he was first elected to the Diet in 1993. Many in Japan found Pyongyang's actions unforgivable, lighting a nationalist fuse here.

In step with the US, Japan imposed financial sanctions on the reclusive Stalinist state on Sept.19 -- the eve of Abe’s election as LDP president -- over its volley of missile test launches in early July. Japan and the US are stepping up pressure on North Korea as Pyongyang still refuses to return to six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions, which have been stalled since last November. But many observers question the effectiveness of unilateral financial sanctions. The other countries participating in the six-nation talks -- South Korea, China and Russia -- remain reluctant about pushing Pyongyang even further.

On the economic front, Abe has said he will pursue Koizumi’s reform policy based on laissez-faire capitalism. But he will tweak it amid growing criticism that gaps between haves and have-nots have widened in Japanese society during Koizumi’s more than five years in office. Abe has launched a “re-challenge society” initiative aimed at helping the unemployed or failed entrepreneurs make another try. The new financial services minister, Yamamoto, concurrently occupies a newly created post of state minister in charge of “re-challenge.”

Now that Japan has emerged from years of deflation, Abe has set an aggressive target for real economic growth of no less than 3 percent a year. This target rate is higher than the government's forecast of 1.9 percent growth in the current fiscal year ending in March 2007. Abe will aim to achieve the target growth through tax breaks aimed at encouraging technological innovation in the private sectors, especially the information technology one, and thereby boosting productivity, a key condition for growth amid the rapidly graying -- and even shrinking – population resulting from abysmally low birth rates.

Abe has emphasized the need for more spending cuts to nurse Japan’s ailing government finances -- the worst among major industrialized nations -- back to health. He has said, however, that it is too early to talk about any specific size or timing of a possible hike in the currently 5 percent, broad-based consumption tax. Opinion polls show that rehabilitating the nation’s creaking social security system, such as pensions, amid dramatic demographic changes is a issue of greatest concern for most Japanese.

“Without economic growth, we will be unable to take effective measures to reverse the trend of fewer children and reconstruct government finances," Abe said recently. "We should attract more investment into the nation from all over the world, and take advantage of rapid growth in other Asian economies."

Sino-Japanese relations have often been said to be “cold in politics and hot in economics.” But Beijing has warned that chilly political relations may spill over into the economic realm, resulting in relations that are “cold in politics and cool in economics.” China is now Japan’s largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, concluding free-trade agreements, or FTAs, is considered to be the best avenue to cashing in on rapid growth in other Asian economies. But FTA negotiations between Japan and South Korea remain stalled for nearly two years, partly because of soured political ties. Japan’s heavily protected agricultural market -- which has been left unscathed despite Koizumi’s reform drive -- also remains the biggest obstacle to concluding FTAs with many trading partners. Abe’s seriousness about agricultural reform is in doubt now that he appointed Toshikatsu Matsuoka, a leader of the LDP lawmakers with close ties to the farm industry and most vocal opponent of market liberalization.

After being elected the LDP president, Abe said, "I'm fully aware of the weight of the post of LDP president. The LDP has contributed to peace. I want to take the helm to lead the country in the right direction.” But critics fear that he might lead the country in the wrong direction.

Some within the LDP are uncomfortable with Japan's swing to the right, which began under Koizumi and looks likely to gain pace under Abe. Abe was elected the LDP president with broad support within the party across factional lines. But many of those who voted for Abe just jumped on the bandwagon, hoping for party and government posts or simply fearing being sidelined. Some even disapprove of Abe’s views on key policy issues. "I have repeatedly warned against extreme nationalism," former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone wrote in a newspaper. "Nipping it in the bud is the duty of political leaders."

Abe’s high popularity among Japanese voters does not necessarily mean that they support his nationalistic and hawkish streak. In fact, opinion polls showed that the largest percentage -- 43 percent in one recent survey -- of those pollees who said they favored Abe as Koizumi’s successor cited his personality and image, not policies.

The first test of Abe will come in late October when two by-elections for the Lower House will be held -- one in Osaka Prefecture and the other in Kanagawa Prefecture. In November, a gubernatorial election will be held in Okinawa, where the huge bulk of American bases and forces stationed in Japan are located. The outcome of the Okinawa vote could affect progress on the realignment plan for US bases and forces, which was finalized in May. Next year, Abe faces two major elections -- the unified local elections in spring and a triennial Upper House election in summer. The latter will be seen as a major national referendum on Abe’s policies. The biggest opposition DPJ hopes to deprive the LDP-led coalition of a majority in the Upper House as a significant stepping stone to power. If that actually happens, the Abe government would be left lame-duck.

Koizumi, who roared into office in April 2001 with a vow to “destroy the old LDP,” changed the way Japanese politics work. The in-house factional system, which has long been seen as synonymous with the LDP-dominated politics, is virtually on the verge of extinction. More important, Koizumi took control over the budget compilation from the governing party to cut public spending, especially on often wasteful public works projects -- vote winners for the LDP in rural areas. As a key component of his overall reform program, Koizumi pushed through a bill to privatize Japan Post, the gigantic financial institution with US$3 trillion in deposits, to free up funds for more sound investments and thereby give a boost to Japan’s economy. His combative style in the fight against intra-party opponents to his reform drive -- whom he referred to as “old-guard conservatives” or “resistance forces” -- has boosted his public approval rating. This in turn provided him with much needed ammunition to push through reform programs.

It seems too early, however, to tell whether the changes brought about during Koizumi’s more than five years in office will all hold for good.

To be sure, the faction-oriented LDP politics may not return. If Abe -- or any other future LDP premier -- yields to pressure from the various factions, it would be just like playing Russian roulette because a disappointed public would likely withdraw its support from him -- and his party. But some signs are emerging of vested interests getting a new lease of life. Pressure may mount on the Abe government for more spending on public works projects in the name of narrowing the gap in society, especially between urban and rural areas. In July, the Koizumi government adopted a basic economic and fiscal policy that calls for cuts in spending on public works projects of between 1 and 3 percent annually over the next five years. But the Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry, which accounts for most of such projects, has requested a 18 percent increase in its budget for fiscal 2007.

Abe has been elected five times to the Diet since 1993 from a constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan. Yamaguchi played an important role in Japanese history. Yamaguchi was once called Choshu. Samurai from the Choshu clan played a leading role in the 19th-century Meiji Restoration, which topped the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the emperor’s power. The main power of the Meiji government was from the former Choshu clan, including the first prime minister, Hirofumi Ito.

Koizumi became known as the "destroyer” and sought to cast himself in the same light as the 16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga, who ushered in a new era of national reunification after 100 years of strife. Abe apparently has a strong desire to become the “creator.” Apparently having in mind Choshu people who built the post-samurai era, Abe said recently, “People from Choshu are good at creating things.” However, the biggest question is: what will he create?