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Shinzo Abe

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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”)



“Normal” Japan

23 September 2006

Shinzo Abe and a “Normal” Japan

By Gwynne Dyer

“We just ignore them!” said the man at the think tank in Beijing, a senior adviser to the Chinese foreign ministry, and burst out laughing. He laughed because it is a long and daunting list of people to ignore.

He has to ignore the American journalists and academics who predict an eventual war with China, the US armed forces, who are transferring more and more hardware to the western Pacific, and the Bush administration officials whose search for allies in Asia to “contain China” culminated in not-quite-an-alliance with India last year. He also has to ignore their counterparts in the Chinese military-industrial complex, who try to use all that as evidence that China must pour much more resources into defence. He is a busy man.

The reason he (and most of the Chinese foreign policy establishment) deliberately ignore them all that is because taking the “American threat” seriously and trying to match it would just play into the hands of the hawks on both sides. There is no objective reason that makes a US-Chinese clash inevitable, but preparing for it, or even talking too much about it, actually makes it more possible.

It’s an admirably sane attitude, founded on the obvious fact that China would be far worse off in any confrontation with the United States today than it would be in ten or twenty years’ time, when rapid Chinese economic growth will have narrowed the gap between them. So even if you believe a clash is inevitable sooner or later (which they don’t), then it’s a good idea to have it much later, not today.

I heard the same argument from half a dozen other influential foreign policy analysts in Beijing two weeks ago, which should have been reassuring. It would have been, if not for the fact that every one of those experts, having patiently explained that there were no threats on the horizon that could deflect China’s “peaceful rise” to great-power status, then added: “except Japan.” That is quite an exception, since Japan has the world’s second-biggest economy and is right on China’s doorstep.

Which brings us to Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister of Japan. Elected as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on 20 September and formally installed as prime minister this Tuesday (26 September), he is the youngest man (52) to occupy the office since the Second World War. Indeed, he only entered parliament thirteen years ago and got his first cabinet-level job just last year.

But Abe didn’t really need to serve a long apprenticeship; he sort of inherited the job. Twenty years ago, his father was foreign minister, and widely tipped as a future prime minister until he was sidetracked by a corruption scandal and then died relatively young. His grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was prime minister in the late 1950s, despite having been identified (but not tried) as a war criminal by the American occupation authorities. And this is not just a political lineage; it’s a clearly defined ideological group within the Japanese ruling elite.

The people around Abe are uncompromising nationalists who insist that Japan must become a “normal” country, which means that it should stop apologising for the Second World War, rewrite school textbooks omitting all the material about war guilt and Japanese atrocities, and rewrite the “peace” constitution so that Japan’s euphemistically titled “Self-Defence Forces” can legally become ordinary armed forces, able to be deployed overseas.

This group, long a minority faction within the LDP, first gained power with the choice of outgoing prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as leader five years ago, but Abe takes a harder line: he has even said that it is “not necessarily unconstitutional” for Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent. He advocates even closer military ties with the United States, and worries aloud about the intentions of a stronger China. He not only irritates the Chinese, whose relations with Japan are at the lowest point in decades after five years of Koizumi; he actually frightens them.

No sane Japanese wants to turn the country’s giant neighbour and biggest trading partner into an active enemy, and Abe isn’t mad. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a government has talked itself into a needless military confrontation.

Symbolism matters. If Abe continues Koizumi’s habit of making annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine — which is devoted to the souls of Japan’s millions of war dead, including fourteen leaders who were hanged as war criminals after the country’s defeat in 1945 — then many Chinese will conclude that he is a real threat. Koizumi’s official visits as prime minister outraged people all over Asia whose countries were occupied by Japan during the war, but the Chinese in particular went ballistic.

Shinzo Abe has refused to say whether he will copy Koizumi, but he visited the shrine privately as recently as last spring. If he visits again as prime minister, Sino-Japanese relations will get even worse, and it will get still harder for the sensible people in Beijing to ignore the rhetoric of the American hawks and the warnings and pleas of their own hawks. With a little bad luck, we could be as little as a couple of years away from the start of a new Cold War in Asia.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“It’s an…today”; and “But Abe…elite”)