Abe Shinzo: Japan’s Most Consequential Prime Minister since Yoshida Shigeru

Introduction to Special Forum
Abe Shinzo: Japan’s Most Consequential Prime Minister since Yoshida Shigeru


The year 2015 promises to be a milestone in Japan’s transition from a defeated state remaining on the defensive over its history with a low strategic profile, to a proud and proactive force for the reorganization of Asia within the US-led international community. Abe Shinzo is on track to be recognized as the most successful prime minister in sixty years in accomplishing realist goals at the expense of still lingering passive pacifism and revisionist goals in place of defensive apologizing. His triumph would, ideally, be marked by a speech to a joint session of Congress, showcasing the lessons the world should recall on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1945; Japan’s consistent advocacy of peace in the postwar and post-postwar eras; and the close friendship and partnership of the Japanese and American peoples now solidified by joint leadership of TPP, as a new economic architecture for the Asia-Pacific region, and an updated edition of joint guidelines, leading the way to a new security architecture for an even broader Indo-Pacific region. His acclaim is within reach, but Abe’s legacy may yet be tarnished by evidence that he is an ideologue more than a reformer, a revisionist more than a realist, and a captive to a narrowly focused right wing agenda more than a visionary for a forward-looking great power.

Why is 2015 a year of special significance? The answer is that it is a year of both memorable commemorations and perilous tests for a region in flux, where great powers, middle powers, and a rogue state are facing decisive turning points. After Japan approached the 50th anniversary of the war’s end in 1995 defensively with the Murayama statement and the 60th anniversary in 2005 perplexed about why it was under duress as Chinese angrily demonstrated and South Koreans bitterly recalled their unsatisfactory normalization of relations with Japan, the 70th anniversary will likely be marked by defiance and assertiveness that, as far as Japan is concerned, the wounds have healed and Japan is back to “normal.” This message will not be shared across the region, notably when Vladimir Putin hosts Kim Jong-un and, presumably, Xi Jinping in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war (on May 9 in Europe) in a more divisive manner. That leaves Park Geun-hye in the middle—more sensitive to Abe’s revisionist drift, but also more vulnerable to polarization hostile to the United States as well as Japan and with an ambivalent quest for reunification at a time of commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

Anniversaries have greater resonance in 2015 than in recent times because of so much emphasis on history as the core of national identity. This has always been the case for North Korea, but Xi Jinping and Putin have followed suit in recent years. Park has put history in the forefront in dealing with Japan, not least of all because Abe and conservatives who support him are obsessed with historical memory. The result is that 2015 will be widely viewed through the prism of sensitive issues left from the past—territorial disputes, “comfort women,” the Yasukuni Shrine, charges and countercharges about which country is challenging the postwar order, etc. Into this cauldron, Abe’s balance between realism centered on collective defense led by the United States and revisionism focused on overturning the verdicts from World War II will be intensely scrutinized. Abe’s foreign policy is difficult to separate from his domestic agenda, as seen in the linkage between TPP and the third arrow of Abenomics, the uncertainty over whether domestic politics gives him the support base for his international agenda, the challenge of putting aside domestic initiatives at odds with foreign policy pragmatism, and the overall struggle between realism as the main force in foreign policy and revisionism as a rising force in domestic policy.

On the assumption that US-Japanese relations will experience a tailwind in 2015 as Sino-Japanese tensions are reduced and important milestones are reached relating to TPP, joint guidelines, and Abe’s reception in the United States, how Abe will use this upswing will be of great interest inside Japan and across the Indo-Pacific region. Riding a largely successful election outcome of December 2014 and a rather positive shift in relations with China since November 2014, Abe is well positioned to build on momentum in economic and security ties with the United States as he looks ahead to a transformative visit to the Washington in the spring. Yet, failure in negotiations over TPP, which was blamed on agricultural protectionism, and inability to deliver on security coordination, notably the Futenma base transfer, would seriously mar Abe’s visit. No less troublesome would be renewed focus on his revisionist agenda, brought again to the attention of Americans in January when Japanese officials tried unsuccessfully to get McGraw-Hill publishers to drop mention of “comfort women” from a textbook. In the articles that follow the prospects for Abe’s foreign policy in 2015 are viewed through the prism of the recent elections, the domestic opposition to Abenomics and TPP, the successes and failures of his foreign policy so far, the phases in Japan-US relations over the past two years, and the struggle between realism and revisionism with South Korea identified as the principal test case.

The key issue in Brad Glosserman’s article is that however confident Abe may be over the results of the December Lower House elections he does not enjoy a real mandate. The LDP is more dependent on Komeito, and the parties to the right of the LDP, who would have supported Abe, suffered major losses. The low turnout and high level of apathy in what many regarded as an unnecessary election, do not work in Abe’s favor. Glosserman argues that Abe sees economic rejuvenation as his first priority, regarding it as indispensable for security objectives. Yet, he puts these objectives in jeopardy with nationalist thinking that prevents reconciliation with some of Japan’s neighbors, we are told, in a context where most Japanese disagree with Abe’s ambition to revise the Constitution, to the point that Japanese are now becoming more inward looking. This analysis casts doubt on what he is likely to accomplish as a realist, speaking to an international audience split on what they desire, and as a revisionist, who arouses various degrees of foreign opposition.

Terada Takashi focuses on the impact of the December elections on the domestic struggle between Abe and political opponents inside and outside the government in pursuing Abenomics and TPP. He points to JA Zenchu as the villain standing in the way of a growth strategy—the third arrow—, which is incompatible with protection of the five, sacred agricultural products, and the Ministry of Finance, as the principal obstacle to delay in further increasing the consumption tax, essential for realizing the goals of Abenomics. Terada attributes Abe’s decision to call a snap election, in significant part, to the battle with these forces, especially the Ministry of Finance, as it continued to lobby LDP Diet members to go ahead with the planned tax increase. While acknowledging the sustained power of interest groups blocking deregulation, Terada is optimistic about the prognosis for 2015 after the snap election worked in his favor. Yet, he argues that mutual concessions will still be needed to finalize TPP.

Emphasizing security, James Przytup and Yuki Tatsumi find Abe’s vision for foreign policy consistent in promoting international norms, supporting the global commons, and making Japan a more effective US ally. He has made good on his promise that “Japan is back,” giving more substance to themes that already were visible during his prior tenure as prime minister. The authors find also that he has shown strategic vision, realistically assessing the shifting balance of power and clarifying Japan’s priorities as a “proactive contributor to peace” through its US alliance and its policies in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite discord over Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit, they find his policy toward the United States successful, his enhanced security cooperation with US allies welcome, and his overtures to India and support for multilateralism centered on ASEAN to serve major strategic objectives. In ties to the EU, NATO, and various states of Europe, Abe has also been successful, we are told. Noting continued challenges with China and the ROK, the authors do not see an unblemished record of success, but are overwhelmingly positive.

The tone of Glen Fukushima’s article is more critical. Recognizing US optimism from the start of Abe’s second term as prime minister about his economic policies and security ties to the United States, Fukushima pointed to doubts about how Abe’s views of history may affect relations, especially given US engagement with China and South Korea as part of Obama’s “rebalance.” He traces US views of Japan over the past two years through four phases: 1) honeymoon, 2) concern, 3) disappointment, and 4) ambivalence. Although the year 2013 generally preceded well, there were clouds over the honeymoon phase, such as in April, May, and July, when statements by Abe and those close to him kept revisionist themes in the foreground, prompting concern in Washington. Disappointment followed from the end of 2013 when Abe defied US wishes by going to the Yasukuni Shrine and then the tone in Japan toward the Obama administration grew more critical—charging abandonment of an ally—after it had registered its discontent about the impact of the visit. More extreme statements about history further complicated relations. Assessing Obama’s visit to Tokyo in April 2014 as producing mixed results, Fukushima distinguishes views of the “good Abe” in economics, the “bad Abe” in history, and the “uncertain Abe” in national security, and he concludes with a wait-and-see approach to prospects in 2015.

Gilbert Rozman’s article shares the more skeptical tone of Fukushima’s piece and the conclusion that 2013 was more positive than 2014 in assessments of Abe’s intentions, but he puts national security in the plus column as a welcome indicator of Abe’s realism. In examining history in the context of a broader push for revisionism by Abe, Rozman sees South Korea as the principal test case. Describing the debate in Japan’s newspapers and journals between realism and revisionism as seriously distorted from both sides of the political spectrum, he draws heavily on their coverage to argue that revisionism lately has been gaining ground, complicating Japanese trust in the United States as well as US trust in Japan. The intensified campaign for US understanding aims to get it to forget moves toward revisionism while becoming more enthusiastic about gaining a realist partner. The bulk of the article centers on Japanese reasoning about South Korea, blaming it in what some have called a “hate South Korea” literature and putting the “comfort women” issue on center stage to reshape domestic attitudes but also in an international public relations blitz. As Japanese realists recognize, this exacts a price on its relations not only with the ROK, but increasingly also with the United States. The notion that revisionism is largely irrelevant to Japan’s pursuit of a realist foreign policy is doubted in this analysis.

The five articles in this Special Forum draw conclusions about Japan’s foreign policy at the outset of 2015, as Abe begins to capitalize on his overall electoral success to realize objectives he was pursuing in 2013-2014. They express various degrees of optimism about a triumphant visit to Washington in the spring, Abe’s ability to achieve TPP and a realist security policy while minimizing the fallout from his revisionist aspirations, and how the US-Japan alliance will strengthen despite problems in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, above all. Authors contrast successes and challenges, the “good Abe” and the “bad Abe,” and Abe’s intentions and the limitations placed on him due to interest groups in Japan and public apathy or distrust. In this 70th anniversary year, history will acquire even more significance, making it essential to keep trace of the wars over the past even as leaders in the Asia-Pacific region strive to fit Japan into a design for the future.