Abe's Political Balancing Act

Gerald Wright on why Prime Minister Abe's political agenda, which includes gaining Japan the right to participate in collective self-defence, hinges on the success of his economic strategy.
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July 17, 2013

There is a struggle going on for the soul of Japan. It is manifest in the current debate over an amending formula for the constitution but it reaches into the emotions of many Japanese and evokes warring views of their recent history. It is also spilling over into Japan’s relations with its neighbours, exacerbating existing tensions and sparking new ones, and it could affect the manner in which Canada seeks to safeguard and advance its expanding Asian interests.

Constitutional amendments, of which there have been none since the Japanese Constitution came into effect in 1947, currently must receive the support of two-thirds of both houses of the Diet following which they are to be submitted to a referendum in which a simple majority suffices for passage. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic party want to make a simple majority sufficient in both houses of the Diet as well. They likely command enough votes in the House of Representatives (lower house) to pass an amendment to this effect. The House of Councillors (upper house) election on July 21st is the next step in achieving their design. 

The government’s immediate objective is to use the diluted amending formula to gain Japan the right to participate in collective self-defence, thus enabling it to keep its commitments to its allies. Freed of constitutional constraint, for example, Japan’s forces would be able to bring down a North Korean missile headed for the United States. Prime Minister Abe’s ambition extends farther than this, however. The frenetic pace set during his early months as prime minister demonstrates his burning resolve to restore Japanese self-confidence, and his willingness to depart from Japan’s low post-war political profile in order to pursue a grand strategy with the assurance that befits a major power.

Circumstances have favoured Abe thus far. China’s recent belligerence has made it much easier to argue that Japan should play an enhanced role in international security and for at least some other Pacific countries to accept this, even though it conjures up memories of Japan’s efforts to subjugate them. After some unfortunate statements Abe has repressed his instinct to revise the prevailing narrative of Japan’s aggression before and during the Second World War. His economic policies, everywhere known as “Abenomics”, have garnered favourable reviews from, among others, the International Monetary Fund. He has evidently realized that economic policy is his strong suit because he has been emphasizing this in his campaign, while downplaying a new constitutional amending formula, which does not command enormous support from Japanese voters.   

Abe’s victory on July 21 is almost assured but it now appears that he will fall short of his desired two-thirds of the seats in the upper house. That won’t stop him striving for his objective, which he may seek to achieve by reinterpreting the current constitution. He has already sent many signals of the increased weight he wants Japan to exert: a defence budget that adds funding for F-35 stealth fighter jets, an attack submarine, and new anti-ship missiles; moves to establish a National Security Council to integrate political and military decision-making; and his incessant travels to foreign capitals. The Abe government combines the pursuit of its political objectives with market opening initiatives for Japan’s infrastructure exports, the distribution of development assistance, and the exercise of diplomacy. By hosting fifty African leaders at the 5th Tokyo International Conference on African Development, for example, the Prime Minister made clear that Japan wants to mount a firm response to China’s penetration of the African continent.

Though Japan’s population and gross domestic product are both three to four times Canada’s, Canadians think of the Japanese as modest and constructive partners. Prime Minister Abe’s more assertive Japan could require an intensive re-calculation of Canada’s goals and strategies, particularly if Canada needs Japan’s help in being accepted as a serious player in Asia. Abe has already told Prime Minister Harper that he wants to strengthen Japan’s security dialogue with Canada. Canada could confront some hard policy choices down the road such as whether to support Japan’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, or risk China’s ire by siding with Japan in territorial disputes in the East China Sea, or how much to pay for Canada’s accession to the East Asia Summit. 

Admittedly, such speculation could be moot. Abe could be sowing the seeds of his own destruction by disturbing subterranean forces in Japanese politics. Civil libertarians react with horror to his proposal for changing the amending formula. How could a constitution so easily alterable by the majority party in the legislature perform its vitally important functions of limiting a government’s power and protecting minority rights? There is also a strongly held view that the present “war-renouncing” constitution remains consistent with Japan’s interests and with the character of the Japanese people. Abe’s good fortune is that the opposition is currently in considerable disarray after the fiasco of Democratic party rule from 2009 to 2012, but how much longer will it take for it to reorganize its ranks and put forward a viable alternative government?   

In the immediate future, realization of the prime minister’s strategic vision depends on his political success which, in turn, will be determined by whether Abenomics gets Japan back up on its feet. Mr. Abe is walking a tightrope with high risk policies of monetary ease, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform, their risk compounded by a national debt expected soon to top 245 percent of gross domestic product. If voters do not see an improvement in their standard of living his government will be devoured by political opponents and those who think they are going to be hurt by tariff reform and deregulation. A spike in interest rates accompanied by a crash in bond prices, a reversal of growth, or signs that profits are not being reflected in higher salaries and wages could spell the end of the grand design that has been animating Japan these past exciting months.