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What Drives Shinzo Abe?

20 May 2013

What Drives Shinzo Abe?

By Gwynne Dyer

Shinzo Abe, now six months into his second try at being prime minister of Japan, is a puzzling man. In his first, spectacularly unsuccessful go in 2006-07, he was a crude nationalist and an economic ignoramus who rarely had control of his own dysfunctional cabinet. By the time he quit, after only a year in office, his popularity rating was below 30 percent and his health was breaking down.

Last December his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a landslide victory in the elections for the lower house of the Diet (parliament), and as party leader he became prime minister again – but what a difference six years makes. He’s still a radical nationalist who on occasion comes close to denying Japan’s guilt for the aggressive wars of 1931-45, but in economics he is now Action Man. His approval rating is currently over 70 percent.

In only six months Abe has broken most of the rules that defined Japan’s budgetary and monetary policy for the past twenty years, and he has promised to break all the old rules about restrictive trade policies as well. (Together, his new policies are known as “Abenomics”) He has launched a make-or-break race for growth that only the boldest gambler would risk. Who is this guy, and what happened to change him so much?

A resident foreign academic with long experience of Japan once told me that there were only around 400 people who really counted in Japan: they would all fit into one big room. Most of them would be there because their fathers or grandfathers had also been there, and Shinzo Abe would certainly be one of them.

Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was a member of General Tojo’s war cabinet in 1941-45, a co-founder of the LDP in 1955, and prime minister in 1957-60. But heredity does not guarantee competence, and on his first outing in power Shinzo Abe was an embarrassment to the LDP. He has obviously acquired some braver and perhaps wiser advisers since then, most notably Yoshihide Suga, now chief cabinet secretary.

Abe put several ultra-right-wing ministers in the cabinet, and it is Suga’s job to keep them from giving voice to their revisionist views on history. “Our Cabinet will adopt a unified perception of history,” he told them. “Make no slip of the tongue because it would immediately cost you your post.” He also polices Abe’s own tongue: no more remarks like “It is not the business of the government to decide how to define the last world war” or “comfort women were prostitutes.”

Abe doesn’t mind, because he has bigger fish to fry this time round. He has launched a high-risk strategy to break Japan out of twenty years of economic stagnation by cutting taxes, raising government spending, and flooding the economy with cash. One of his first acts was to put his own man in as head of the Bank of Japan, and order him to break the deflationary spiral by adopting a target of 2 percent annual inflation.

He has also promised to smash the protectionism that has hampered the Japanese economy for so long, although this will require him to take on the powerful agriculture and small-business lobbies. He has even promised to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an American-led effort to liberalise trade in the region, in order to guarantee that the structural reforms will continue.

Structural reforms will have to wait until Abe also has a majority in the upper house of the Diet, which he confidently expects to win in the July elections, but already his strategy is showing results. Economic growth in the first three months of this year equates to about 3.6 percent annually, more than four times higher than the long-term average of the past two decades, and the Japanese stock market is up 80 percent since January.

The strategy is high-risk because Japanese government debt is already the highest in the developed world: 240 percent of Gross Domestic Product. If the surge in growth does not last, the government’s income from taxes will not rise (it is no higher now than it was in 1991) and in a few years the debt will soar to an unsustainable level. The country will essentially go bankrupt.

Of course, the surge may persist; creating a perception of vigorous growth is half the battle. But why take such a risk? Probably because Abe is keenly aware that Japan had the world’s second-biggest economy when he was prime minister the first time, and now it’s only the third-biggest. The country that overtook it was China.

For a thousand years China was the dominant power in eastern Asia. Japan wrested that role from it in the late 19th century, but now it’s going back to its natural home – and Abe would do almost anything to prevent that. That’s why he takes such a hard line on the dispute between the two countries over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But much more importantly, he must get the Japanese economy growing again, or the country will end up far behind China.

To avoid that, he will take any risk.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“A resident…them”; and “He has…continue”)



Japan: Not an Election, A Revolution

25 August 2009

Japan: Not an Election, A Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

Some years ago, a political science professor at a Japanese university told me that he reckoned you could fit everybody who counted in Japan into one room. There are about 400 of them, so it would have to be a ballroom. All but a couple would be men, of course – and at least half of them would be there because their fathers and grandfathers were in the same ballroom 25 and 50 years ago.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won a landslide victory in the election on 30 August, sweeping the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) out after an almost unbroken 54 years in power, but it still must break that system it must break if it is really going to change Japan. It won’t be easy.

Since the last elected LDP prime minister resigned three years ago, three other members have filled the job: Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a former prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, the son of a former prime minister, and now Taro Aso, also the grandson of a former prime minister. And what about Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ leader who will now become prime minister? He is the grandson of the prime minister who defeated Aso’s grandfather.

The DPJ should end up with between 308 members in the 480-seat House of Representatives, which should be a majority big enough to crush all opposition, but it’s a bit more complicated than that in Japan. Not everybody in that small ballroom filled with the 400 people who matter is a politician.

Most of them are the businessmen who run the giant corporations that used to be called zaibatsu (the pre-Second World War industrial conglomerates) and the top layer of senior civil servants – all of whom have been in bed with the LDP all of their working lives. In Japan they call it the “iron triangle ”: LDP faction leaders, senior civil servants and industrial bosses, all working together to stifle change and keep themselves in power. It’s a hard combination to beat.

The one previous time in living memory when the LDP lost power, to a fragile coalition of opposition parties in 1993, the iron triangle immediately set to work to undermine and discredit the new government, and the LDP was back in power in eleven months. That isn’t going to happen this time, for three reasons.

The LDP has presided over another fifteen years of economic stagnation, and people no longer link it with the boom years. This time there is a single opposition party, more or less united and ready to take over the government. And the recession is ending in Japan, although unemployment remains high. Nevertheless, it will be a miracle if the Democratic Party of Japan can really change the country even with four undisturbed years in power.

About fifteen years ago, when I was young and foolish, I spent a couple of months in Japan pursuing a single question: why was Japan the only developed country outside the Communist world that didn’t have a “Sixties”? (I had just finished a television series, which is the moral equivalent of living in a cave for two years, so I needed to get out a bit.)

Was there something unique in Japanese culture that insulated it from social and political trends elsewhere in the industrialised world? Why were Japanese people still so deferential, so hierarchical, so DOCILE in the face of arrogant power and insolent corruption? Why was Japan to all intents and purposes a one-party state?

That was the question I went with, in my ignorance – but everybody in Japan knows the answer. Japan’s equivalent of the “Sixties” actually began in the 1950s, but it was ruthlessly crushed.

By the 1950s the Cold War was going full blast in Asia, and the United States was afraid that the youth revolution getting underway in Japan was the prelude to a Communist take-over. It probably wasn’t anything of the sort, but the US had been the occupying power in Japan until recently and still wielded immense influence. It took action to stop stamp out all the nonsense.

The old zaibatsu were allowed to rebuild, because that was the quickest way to get Japan back on its feet economically. Conservative politicians (including some war criminals) were encouraged to form a political party that received full American support, the LDP. And the government that emerged from this, with considerable help from its yakuza (gangster) allies, beat the kids’ revolt into the ground.

By the time the rest of the developed world had its Sixties, the battle had been fought and lost in Japan. During the half-century that followed, most people just kept their heads down and stayed out of trouble. It is still rare for ordinary people to discuss politics in Japan, even though the active repression ended a generation ago.

That is the system and the mind-set that the DPJ must start to dismantle if Japan is to become a normal democratic country. The “iron triangle” will fight until the very last ditch to preserve the present system, however badly it has served the country. So the key question becomes: can the DPJ reach and take the last ditch in only four years?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The one…power”)

Liberal Democrats: Up and Down?

22 February, 2009

Liberal Democrats: Up and Down?

By Gwynne Dyer

Big crises like the current recession change a lot of things that once seemed to be a permanent part of the landscape. In Japan the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed the country for all but nine months of the past half-century, is about to go over a cliff.

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s approval rating has fallen to single digits, but having changed leader three times in the past three years, the LDP cannot decently do it again without calling an election. The election must be held by October in any case — and it is hard to believe that the LDP can win it.

For over half a century, Japan has effectively been run by the “iron triangle” of conservative LDP politicians, bureaucrats who had spent their entire careers under LDP governments, and the big industrial companies. It was very successful in fostering rapid economic growth between 1955 and 1990, so much so that by the late 1980s the United States was rife with paranoid fantasies in which the Japanese took over the world economy.

The “lost decade” of the 1990s, in which Japan’s economy barely grew at all, put paid to that notion, and the last decade has not been a lot better. The LDP’s highly effective patronage machine postponed the day of reckoning, but the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won control of the House of Councillors (the upper house of

parliament) in July, 2007 — and the recession virtually guarantees that it will also win control of the more powerful lower house later this year.

At that point, Japan’s post-war history finally changes course. The DPJ’s secretary-general, Yukio Hatoyama, says bluntly that as soon as his party takes power, it will fire any bureaucrat who does not whole-heartedly support its policies. That’s not a normal way to treat public servants when a government changes in a democracy, but this is a democracy where all the civil servants have served only one party all of their lives.

What is bringing fundamental change to Japan is the recession, of which it is the foremost victim: in the last quarter of 2008, the Japanese economy shrank at an annual rate of 12.7 percent. The LDP is finally losing power because the underlying weakness of the Japanese economy that made it so vulnerable in a recession cannot be blamed on anybody else.

Blame is what is driving things in Britain, too, although the Labour Party has only been in power for twelve years, not fifty-four.

Before Gordon Brown became prime minister less than two years ago, he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with overall responsibility for the British economy, for ten years. The British economy, though not falling as fast as the Japanese, is not doing well, and everybody knows who’s to blame. So the main opposition party, the Conservatives, are certain to win the next election, which must be held within fourteen months. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Labour might not even come second, for there is a Liberal Democratic Party in Britain too. It is the heir to the historic Liberal Party, which under that name or in its previous guise as the Whigs was one of the two great political parties in Britain for several centuries. But in the early 20th century it was overtaken by the new Labour Party and reduced to third-party status.

Two-party systems of the sort that predominate in the English-speaking countries are very unforgiving to third parties, and since the First World War the Liberals and their Liberal Democratic successors have never won an election or formed a government in Britain. Sometimes their policies had quite broad support , but too many people always calculated in the end that a vote for a third party was a wasted vote.

Until, perhaps, now.

Britain’s Lib Dems have had a good crisis so far, with their economic spokesman, Vince Cable, consistently demonstrating a firmer grasp of the situation than either the floundering Labour government or the Conservative opposition. The opinion polls still show Labour safely in second place, although far behind the Conservatives. But with at least a year to run until the election, and every month bringing more bad economic news that will be blamed on Labour, those numbers are going to move.

The main movement will be of Labour voters, who are far likelier to move to the Lib Dems. If enough of them move, then the seemingly impossible could actually happen: an election result that put the Lib Dems, however narrowly, ahead of Labour. The Conservatives would still be the government, of course, but the Lib Dems would become the official opposition.

The psychological impact would be huge. Suddenly, for the first time in almost a hundred years, the Liberal Democrats would be seen as the alternative government. And what happened to the Liberals almost a century ago would happen to Labour instead.

Is this probable? No. Is it possible? Yes. If the recession is big and bad enough to drive the Japanese Liberal Democrats from power at last, almost anything is possible. Although it is a hell of a price to pay.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“Prime…win it””; and