The Real Shinzo Abe Stands Up
Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave an important speech in the heart of London's financial district during which he bragged several times about the "political capital" that he had accrued through his party's landslide election victory in 2012, and the popularity of his economic program dubbed "Abenomics."
The reference to "political capital" was made in the context of pending economic reforms. He tried to reassure foreign investors that he had the clout to overcome resistance by vested interests in Japan that might stand in the way of his "third arrow" reforms to make Japan's economy more responsive to the free market and improve its competitiveness.
Instead, near the end of his first full year in office, he chose to spend a good chunk of his political capital not on opening free market reforms, but on pushing through parliament a highly controversial and probably unneeded "state secrets act" raising the penalties for leaking rather vaguely defined classified information.
Then he followed this up with a surprising Dec. 26 (one year after his election as prime minister) visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo. He went, he said, to pay his respects to the shades of 2.5 million Japanese soldiers and sailors killed in wars stretching back to the Meiji era. But the shrine also includes the souls of 14 former officials convicted in the Tokyo Trials of waging aggressive wars in Asia.
It would be fair to say that the only people happy about the state secrets act passage were Washington officials, who reportedly pushed Tokyo to enact the law as part of closer military cooperation. The only ones who were pleased with the Yasukuni caper were the die-hard, conservative nationalists who see Abe as a soul mate.
The Abe government's public approval ratings, which had stayed remarkable high throughout his first year in office, took a hit. By some accounts the prime minster's approval rating fell into the low 50s (other polls put the figure higher). That is still a high mark in anybody's game, and much better than his predecessors, who by this time in their tenure were typically on track for resignation.
Most of the public opinion polls immediately after the Yasukuni visit showed little change. The Japanese do not view the Yasukuni shrine visits with the same sense of outrage demonstrated by the Chinese and the Koreans. Nonetheless, they are uneasy about it since they know that it damages relations with neighbors. They breathed easier when the anticipated anti-Japanese riots and boycotts failed to materialize.
Ironically, it was Abe, during his first term as premier, who repaired Japan's deteriorating relations with China by refraining to visit the shrine after his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had damaged relations by making regular pilgrimages. Until last month no subsequent Japanese premier had visited the shrine in his official capacity.
The fact that he made no visits during his first year of his second term, especially around August, which is the traditional time for visits marking the surrender in 1945, led some to believe that he would continue to let cabinet members attend while personally refraining from the gesture. But Abe made no secret of the fact that he regretted not having paid his respects during his first term.
For Abe such a pilgrimage is very personal. After all, his beloved grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, could easily have become the 15th Class-A war criminal enshrined in the Yasukuni. Kishi managed the wartime economy of Japan and was detained during the occupation but never tried. He later went on to become the prime minister who negotiated the U.S.-Japan security agreement.
The larger question for most Japanese was what this visit, plus some other recent actions, portends for the coming year. The overriding question concerning Abe has always been whether he can suppress his deeply conservative instincts, which are not shared by a majority of Japan's people, who would prefer a focus on the economy.
For most of his first year, however, Abe managed to suppress his conservative/nationalist id and stay on message. As the new year opened, he smoothly pivoted back to his main message of economic revival. In his first press conference of the year, he urged Japan's companies to raise wages for its workers, especially as an increase in the national sales tax looms in April.
One is likely to hear more of this kind of jawboning in the coming months, as the premier seeks to ensure that more of the benefits from Abenomics trickle down into the pocket books of ordinary people. In its first year Abenomics made some impressive gains. The stock market ended the year at its highest level since 1972. A 20 percent fall in the yen versus the dollar was a boon to export industries.
But if the premier is to maintain his popularity, and thus his political capital, he must demonstrate that Abenomics doesn't just benefit hedge fund managers. That means persuading parliament to approve some potentially controversial measures such as lowering the corporate income tax (at a time when the government is raising the sales tax).
At his year opening press conference, Abe also alluded to a subject that he hasn't mentioned very much in recent months -- amending the constitution. Rewriting the U.S.-written document is a cherished dream not only of Abe himself, but of virtually all right-wing politicians in Japan, but it would take an enormous amount of political capital to enact changes any time soon.
But Abe has the benefit of time. He has more than two years remaining on his first term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, a prerequisite for being prime minister. He can run for another three year-term. So he has the luxury of postponing any action for a long time. He may delay action for tactical reasons but he won't give up. As he told NHK national television, "constitutional reform is my life's work."