Japan's New Regime Off to a Fast Start
TOKYO – The new Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is less than two months old, but it has already spawned two new buzzwords: “Abenomics” for his new economic policy, and the “Abe Doctrine” for his foreign policy approach to Asia.
Of the two, “Abenomics” is, for now, much more popular. It is seen everywhere on television broadcasts, and on the front pages of Japanese-language newspapers. It is shorthand for two main initiatives that the new government immediately undertook to jump-start the languishing economy.
They encompass much more public spending on infrastructure projects combined with a monetary side that involves encouraging pumping more money into the economy through massive quantitative easing, leading to an inflation target of about 2 percent. The latter is meant to defeat deflation, which is seen as a drag on the economy.
The second buzzword, “Abe Doctrine,” was to have been the theme of a major address by Abe in Jakarta last month, but the speech was canceled as Abe returned to Tokyo because of the Algerian crisis.
Undoubtedly, another venue will be chosen to highlight the policy doctrine that resurrects an older, vague idea of a loose alliance of like-minded democratic and market-oriented economies in an “arc” sweeping around Asia, from India through Southeast Asia to Japan.
Indeed, the new government had scarcely taken office in late December before it launched an unprecedented diplomatic blitz in Asia. Senior leaders, including the PM himself, fanned out to visit half a dozen Asian countries plus Australia.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, himself a former premier, visited Myanmar, which is seen by many Japanese businessmen as the new El Dorado, because of its remarkable transformation over the past year. For himself Abe visited Vietnam, Thailand and, briefly, Indonesia.
He is planning to go to Washington to confer with President Barack Obama later this month; in the offing is a possible visit to Moscow thereafter. If the latter visit brings forth solid progress on the Southern Kurils territorial dispute, it will be just another feather in the new premier’s hat.
The new government weathered its first crisis over the Islamic terrorist attack at the Amenis Natural Gas Project in the Algerian Sahara. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Sugu diverted a senior foreign service officer already on the way to a European posting to the plant site, who arrived at Amenis before the representatives of any of the other countries with hostages. This move won wide approval, even though 10 Japanese were killed in the standoff.
Not surprisingly, Abe has become the first prime minister in more than a decade to see his public approval rating actually improve, rather than starting their inevitable decline into the low double digits, leading to eventual resignation. A huge majority says it has hopes that Abenomics will promote growth.
But there is another Abe buzzword that one doesn’t hear much about at present: that is “Beautiful Nation,” or “Beautiful Japan.” Abe rolled out this phrase in his first policy speech in 2006, during his previous term as prime minister.
This term is a kind of code word for a catch-all of conservative hobbyhorses, such as inserting more patriotism into the school curriculums, downplaying or denying some of the more unsavory aspects of Japan’s conduct during World War II and rewriting the constitution to eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9.
It shows the difficulty of applying contemporary American ideas of what is “conservative” and what is “liberal” to Japanese politics and policies. After all, the conservative Abe administration has gone whole hog for Keynesian pump priming, which would be anathema to American conservatives, and is in fact out of fashion in nearly every other country in the world.
The Liberal Democratic Party that Abe leads even provided enough votes to pass the doubling of the national sales tax last year (though they were happy enough to let former Premier Yoshihiko Noda and his Democratic Party take all the credit). In fact, Abe and most of his supporters are deeply conservative, just conservative in a very Japanese way.
Abe has two sides to his political persona. One side is the foreign policy realist. He does not rattle sabers, and he seems intent on smoothing relations with China that have been severely damaged since the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands issue caught fire last year. In his first term he actually improved relations with China that had fallen sharply due to former PM Junichiro Koizumi’s official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The other side to Abe is the romantic, “Beautiful Nation” side that makes him want to rewrite Japanese history to put its actions during World War II into a more favorable light, and to drastically revise the American-written constitution to dilute some of its protections for individuals in favor of nurturing a greater “we Japanese” collective spirit.
For the time being, he has suppressed the "Beautiful Nation" desires as he concentrates on economic revival. Abe has evidently learned and absorbed the lessons of his first administration (2006-2007), when he appeared to put “Beautiful Nation” before ordinary bread-and-butter concerns. So he will play it safe, at least until the elections to the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament, are concluded in July.
Abe is very keen on winning this election for his party and winning control of this important institution, even though he will likely not be able to attain a two-thirds majority necessary if he wants to amend the constitution. After all, he presided over a serious defeat in the 2007 upper house election that led to his resignation. Undoubtedly a big win this time around would be very sweet.