RESOLVED: It Is Good for Japan If Shinzo Abe Is Prime Minister until 2021
November 1, 2018
On October 24, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off a new Diet session with a speech promising to tackle social and labor reforms, amend the Constitution, champion free trade, and further diplomatic agendas that advance Japan’s leadership role in international affairs. This was also Abe’s 2,129th day in office, as his victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race in September set him on a course to potentially serve three more years and become the longest serving Prime Minister in post-war history. But some public opinion polls since then indicate a lack of enthusiasm about his policy agenda. In this first issue of the new Debating Japan newsletter series, the CSIS Japan Chair invited two experts on Japanese politics, Dr. Andrew Oros and Mr. Tobias Harris, to assess Abe’s role in Japanese politics and the policy challenges that will animate the political debate in the months ahead.
From the Editor
Dr. Andrew Oros
Professor and Associate Dean at Washington College
Japan has too often been led by prime ministers who rose to power through political compromise rather than by purposeful leaders seeking to transform or elevate Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by contrast, has acted with a conviction that the status quo would not serve Japan well. He needs three more years to complete a policy agenda that could solidify Japan’s future security and prosperity if he continues to act with his characteristic mix of boldness and policy savvy.
Japan faces many challenges to remain competitive, secure, and prosperous in the twenty-first century. After six years of rotating prime ministers, Abe led his party back to power in December 2012 and set out an ambitious agenda to address these challenges, which he has been implementing strategically and systematically each year since that time. The number of simultaneous policy achievements in the economic, security, and other realms is remarkable. The Japanese economy has enjoyed sustained economic growth every year since 2012 and decades-low unemployment. Two major multilateral trade agreements were concluded—with Japan’s neighbors in East Asia and with the European Union. Japan’s first postwar national security strategy document was crafted, leading to the realignment and strengthening of Japan’s military forces. His agenda is not yet fully realized, including his proposal for the first-ever revision of Japan’s postwar constitution—to recognize the legality of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. Addressing trade tensions with the United States also remains on the agenda.
Abe’s success in leveraging a personal relationship with President Donald Trump into policies that protect Japan’s interests would not be matched by another Japanese political leader. This relationship was critical to de-escalating the negative rhetoric about Japan evident in Trump’s presidential campaign as well as the early calls by the Trump administration for U.S. allies to contribute more—and will be equally important in de-escalating new tensions that are brewing over the Trump administration’s push for a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan in lieu of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Moreover, this close personal relationship continues to benefit the deepening security partnership between Japan and the United States—ever more important as tensions between the United States and China rise, and Japan risks being caught in the middle.
Abe came to office in the midst of a security crisis related to China’s escalation of tensions over its claims to the Senkaku islands (which China calls Diaoyu). China took full advantage of political inexperience and frequent leadership turnover in Japan from 2006-12 and worked hard to discredit Abe’s views in the global media when he returned to power in 2012. With Abe’s domestic leadership firmly established, China has opened to senior-level talks with Japan, which promises a degree of reset in the relationship after a decade of bitterness and at times dangerously rising tensions.
More broadly, Abe has successfully returned Japan’s voice to the global stage at a time when global political leadership is essential for Japan’s interests—both in terms of global security and over the future of the liberal economic order. The recent successes of the creation of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement illustrate the value of Japan having a strong political leader.
Successful multitasking at the top is vital to Japan’s multifaceted challenges. Abe—and, importantly, his leadership team—has shown that he has this skill. Another three years gives Abe an opportunity to make difficult decisions, in both domestic policy (pension reform and ballooning debt) and foreign policy. Abe is probably the only politician in the foreseeable future who could make a course correction on two foreign policy issues that have plagued Japan for decades—the abduction issue with North Korea and the Northern Territories issue with Russia.
Abe has flaws, as all leaders do. More importantly, Japan’s political system is flawed—suffering from a lack of a strong and capable opposition party and a robust leadership development system within the ruling coalition. In a different system, it is likely that Abe may not have survived the many scandals of his administration or, alternatively, may have enjoyed more nation-wide support if voters were able to calculate costs and benefits among viable options. In the current system that Japan has, though, Abe is slated to serve until 2021—giving him time to make the tough decisions that could position Japan well for several more decades to come. Japan could benefit from Abe’s steady and strategic leadership through the end of his current term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2021. At that time, Abe would become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history and may join the ranks of only a few other luminary elder statesmen who have left a lasting mark on Japan’s political development.
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Mr. Tobias Harris
Japan Analyst at Teneo Intelligence
It can be difficult to argue that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not deserve an additional three-year term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), particularly given Japan’s long stretch of economic growth and his stewardship of foreign policy in an uncertain global environment. But it may not have been the best outcome for Japan. Prime ministers do not enjoy inexhaustible or endlessly renewable supplies of political capital, and, as Abe approaches the end of his sixth year as prime minister, it is increasingly plausible that he has begun losing his clout. During his final three years, his power could withdraw, perhaps with surprising rapidity.
The most acute threat to Abe’s political strength is his determination to revise Japan’s constitution. During the LDP leadership campaign in August, he renewed his 2017 pledge to move revisions through the Diet and stated that he wanted the ruling party to submit its proposals to the legislature as early as the autumn extraordinary session, which began on October 24.
This determination is laden with risks for Abe. The public is at best ambivalent about Abe’s proposed revisions, including to Article 9, and polls conducted during the LDP campaign showed that revision is dead last among issues that the public wants the prime minister to address during his third term. Komeito, the LDP’s centrist junior coalition partner and whose support is indispensable to pass revisions in both houses of the Diet, is cool to the prime minister’s determination to move quickly, particularly with nationwide local elections and upper house elections looming in 2019. Informal norms dictate that the LDP should seek a consensus with opposition parties on revisions, but the opposition parties see little reason to budge, particularly given public sentiment—which could force Abe to choose between dropping constitutional change or violating norms to pass revisions and risk courting public backlash. Abe will also have to work around the impending abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30, 2019, and the start of a new imperial reign, which could result in calls to preserve national unity and avoid a divisive debate on the constitution. If Abe persists despite these obstacles, his constitutional changes could still face defeat in the national referendum that must be held to approve any revisions, a defeat that would likely mean the premature end of his premiership. For these reasons, Abe is unlikely to persist in this initiative to the point of no return.
The more realistic threat to his power may be a gradual diminution that renders him a lame duck prime minister well before his term as LDP leader ends in September 2021. The factors that could dilute his strength are manifold. He or members of his cabinet could face new allegations of scandal. The LDP could perform poorly in next year’s upper house elections. The October 2019 consumption tax increase could lead to another economic slowdown, particularly if it overlaps with a global downturn. Trade talks with the United States that will begin in January 2019 could go worse than anticipated, exposing Japan to acute economic costs and Abe to public criticism that he has mishandled the U.S.-Japan relationship. Any of these developments could trigger greater resistance to Abe from within the LDP as ambitious party members jockey for position in the race to succeed the prime minister.
Abe has tacitly acknowledged that his power has begun to diminish. His leadership campaign offered no major new proposals or policies, suggesting that it was reelection was more a reward for his accomplishments during his first two terms than a mandate for pursuing ambitious new goals. This is not to say that Abe can do nothing good for Japan over the next three years, particularly given that his power to manage Japan’s diplomacy could outlast his domestic clout. Rather, the most significant cost that could come from Abe’s serving through 2021 is missed opportunities. There are few signs that Abe will use his third term to take dramatic steps to combat Japan’s still-growing national debt or manage the eventual exit from unconventional monetary policy. Nor is there reason to expect that he will advance structural reforms that have been largely shelved during Abe’s tenure, pursue more comprehensive policies to improve the status of women in the economy and society, or articulate a more aggressive approach to reducing Japan’s carbon emissions sharply. Abe’s record on these issues from his first six years is mixed, and it is unlikely that he will accomplish significantly more as he nears the end of his tenure, suggesting that his successor will have a crowded agenda. It may turn out in retrospect that it would have been better for Abe to have yielded power sooner rather than later.
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About the Authors
Andrew L. Oros is a professor of political science and international studies and the associate dean for international education at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. He completed his latest book, Japan’s Security Renaissance (Columbia University Press, 2017), as a visiting fellow at the East-West Center Washington, based in part on research conducted as an invited research fellow at Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies and as a Japan Foundation Abe fellow at Keio University in Tokyo and Peking University in Beijing. In addition, he is the author of Normalizing Japan: Politics, Identity, and the Evolution of Security Practice (Stanford University Press, 2008), co-author of Global Security Watch: Japan (Praeger Press, 2010), and numerous peer-reviewed and policy-centered articles on Japanese politics and East Asian security. He earned his PhD in political science at Columbia University, which included 18 months based at the University of Tokyo. In addition, he earned an MSc in the politics of the world economy from the London School of Economics, and a BA in international relations and East Asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California
Tobias Harris is the Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm that provides timely analysis for the world’s leading investors and Fortune 50 companies. He is also a fellow for political economy at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, a Washington D.C.-based think tank focused on improving understanding of Japan and the U.S.-Japan relations among policymakers and the broader public. He has been published in international publications including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal; quoted as an expert in major newspapers and magazines worldwide, including the Financial Times, New York Times, and Washington Post; and has, for more than a decade, appeared regularly on CNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN International to provide on-air analysis of Japanese politics and economics. Harris has a BA in politics and history from Brandeis University and an M.Phil. in international relations from the University of Cambridge. He is a Council on Foreign Relations term member and a member of the Mansfield Foundation’s U.S.-Japan Network for the Future.
Policy Speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the 197th Session of the Diet (October 24, 2018) in Japanese
Past Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister in English
Post-LDP Presidential Leadership Election Polls by Major Japanese News Media
- Nikkei’s Poll ( September 24, October 4, and October 29 )
- Kyodo’s Poll ( October 3 )
- Mainichi’s Poll ( October 7)
- NHK’s Poll ( October 9)
CSIS Japan Chair’s Analysis, “Shinzo Abe Rolls On,” on the LDP Presidential Election (September 20, 2018)
About the Editor
Yuka Koshino is a research associate with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she focuses on projects involving U.S.-Japan relations and security in the Indo-Pacific region.