Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Japan in Action

TOKYO – Japan’s prolonged political anni horribiles – spanning more than half a decade – has ended. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won a decisive victory in elections to the upper house of parliament held on July 21, bringing to an end the indecisive politics caused by the lack of an effective majority.

During the previous six years, there were six prime ministers, ten defense ministers, and 14 justice ministers (ten of whom came and went during the 39 months of rule by the Democratic Party of Japan). These figures indicate just how unstable the country’s political situation had become.

But anxiety about the immature DPJ government, prolonged deflation, and unprecedented challenges posed by neighboring countries created a widespread sense of crisis among Japanese voters. It was this that motivated them to return the LDP to power, though many voters seemed fed up with the party just a few short years ago.

In the recent election campaign, the LDP continued to criticize the previous DPJ government’s immaturity, but avoided attacks on other parties. Instead, the LDP highlighted the beneficial effects of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reforms (colloquially known as “Abenomics”), such as increased share prices, faster GDP growth, and higher employment, all of which have created hope for a turnaround in Japan’s prospects.

Since Abe returned last December for a second stint as Prime Minister, Japanese voters have entrusted him with maintaining political stability and ensuring economic revitalization. But, following monetary easing and fiscal expansion, it is Abenomics’ third “arrow” that will prove most important – and most politically challenging. The Abe government must implement deregulation and other structural reforms while convincing powerful interest groups to adjust to a new national and global environment in which Japan’s old economic model no longer works.

Fortunately, Abe will not need to worry about elections for the next three years. With strong majorities in both houses, he should be able to secure whatever reform legislation he needs – that is, provided that he can maintain the LDP’s internal discipline (his enormous popularity will help him).

Abe’s agenda includes reform of social security in response to demographic trends, as well as gaining the agriculture sector’s acceptance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the bold regional trade agreement that will unite the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and much of the rest of Asia, with the exception of China. The rigors of the TPP are bound to force significant agricultural reforms, and pushing it through will, indeed, test party discipline.

But Abe is also pressing for change in medical research and the technology sector by embracing long-shunned innovations such as iPS cells (artificial stem cells). He is also emphasizing the development of renewable energy and power-saving innovations, which became an urgent policy objective following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant two years ago. Abe is resolved to make steady progress on each of these key issues.

But Abenomics has a strategic corollary as well. Japanese diplomacy lost its footing in the unstable – and often naive – politics of the DPJ years. Thus, Abe has been traveling abroad every month since last December in an effort to demonstrate that Japan has returned as a global player, and is particularly keen to play a prominent role in recasting Asia’s security structures in the wake of China’s rise. Indeed, Abe has visited 13 countries in the last six months alone (a schedule that has helped him to cast aside any lingering memories of his previous tenure as Prime Minister, when ill health forced him from office after barely a year).

Abe has placed particular emphasis on strengthening Japan’s alliance with the Unites States, which had atrophied as a result of the DPJ government’s feckless behavior (relations with China deteriorated as well). More broadly, Abe envisages Japan’s future as that of a trading country that has assumed its rightful role in ensuring a free and open maritime order. Abe’s diplomatic whirlwind is aimed at strengthening ties with countries that share this commitment, as well as Japan’s other values, including human rights and democracy.

Of course, given Asia’s size and dynamism, there are many other issues that will need to be addressed in the years ahead, including improvement of the security environment in a currently unstable East Asia and amending the country’s constitution, which the LDP has considered doing for many years. But the first priority for Abe’s second government is to revive the Japanese economy. That task has already begun, and the LDP’s recent election victory will strengthen Abe’s ability to complete it.

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  1. CommentedGeorge T. Sipos

    There is only one real comment that can be made here: politicians are the same everywhere. Ms Koike, as the good LDP member she is, implies from the very beginning of her article that the anni horribiles that Japan had to suffer through for the past decade are, how else?, the fault of the opposition party, the DPJ. Far from me to claim that I preferred the Democrats to the Liberal Democrats, since both parties are so similar that one is not sure if they should run under different banners, but I find the author's jab at her party's opposition to be somewhat undeserved.

    And that is because what we don't see addressed here is how the previous four decades of sheer LDP dominance of Japan's political stage set the tone for corrupt government, bribery at the highest levels, secrecy, and double-faced politics. That things have not changed, and the LDP leaders, including Mr. Abe, are still tributaries to the same old political practices, which, in fact, were initiated by their parents' generation, is evident in Mr Abe's recent second mandate as Prime Minister. Anachronistic and retrograde, Mr. Abe and his government maybe "in action," but not for the good of Japan and the Japanese people, but for their own.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    S. Mahmud Ali;
    I basically support Abe's security policy. However, in spite of a majority in both housese, Abe has a deep division, exactly as you said, within the Japanese body-politic on Tokyo's strategic trajectory. Even if Abe should fail in overcoming it while in office, subsequent LDP leaders have got to do it. It is a job that has been left unattended to for a long time.

    As for how you seem to interpret Sino-Japanese relations, I have a very different view. The relations have never been satisfactory for over two thousand years from the Chinese side, for the Japanese have refused to do, unlike Korea, what has always been historically expected by China, to kneel down and kowtow before its moral and civilizatinal greatness.

    The present animosty between China and Japan should been seen in a historical perspective of not simply the present but of the past as well. It is not of Japanese making but of Chinese making. The Japanese as a whole have not yet learned to take it as part of normalcy.

    1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental....
      "They (The Japanese) feel they must retain Chinese good will at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
      "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, Charle E. Tuttle, 1978, p417)."

      I misspelt civilizational as civilizatinal in the above comment.

    2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental....
      "They (The Japanese) feel they must retain Chinese good will at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
      "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, Charle E. Tuttle, 1978, p417)."

      I misspelt civilizational as civilizatinal in the above comment.

    3. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental....
      "They (The Japanese) feel they must retain Chinese good will at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
      "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, Charle E. Tuttle, 1978, p417)."

      I misspelt civilizational as civilizatinal in the above comment.

    4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental....
      "They (The Japanese) feel they must retain Chinese good will at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
      "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, Charle E. Tuttle, 1978, p417)."

      I misspelt civilizational as civilizatinal in the above comment.

    5. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental....
      "They (The Japanese) feel they must retain Chinese good will at all costs. They avoid criticism of China and accept meekly Chinese criticism of Japan, no matter how harsh or unfair....
      "There is another side to the picture, however, which makes it more complex. For one thing, the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt. The Japanese nostalgia for China has been a classic case of unrequited love (Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, Charle E. Tuttle, 1978, p417)."

      I misspelt civilizational as civilizatinal in the above comment.

  3. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Madam Koike writes eloquently about Prime Minister Abe's likely success in turning the Japanese economy around, setting it on a path to sustained progress and revive Japan's role as a global player. She is absolutely right. With the traditional, i.e.,circa 1960-2010 - economic-strategic power-hierarchy, with Japan the top Asian player, having been recast owing to China's re-emergence, strategic instability now threatens regional peace and security. A revived Japan should, in this view, help to stabilise the moorings of a restored regional equilibrium.

    This perspective has considerable merit to commend it. However, this would have been more true had Japan had been a diplomatic friend or partner of China. Then, a reinvigorated China, and a revived Japan, working together, could not only lead the rest of Asia into peace and prosperity, but also help restore global economic health. Sadly, as Ms. Koike must know, that is not the case. The competitive edge to Japan's revitalisation and its increasingly adversarial interaction with China serve to deepen regional anxiety as the two Asian giants line up to claim an apparently zero-sum regional positional status.

    Prime Minister Abe has not shied away from underscoring his belief in the need for establishing a "value-based" Asia-Pacific community of apparently liberal-democratic states, one that not only excludes China, but, in fact, surrounds China and its handful of authoritarian client-states with a political-economic-military ring-fence, although he does not say so in as many words. If he succeeds, and with strong US support manifest in the revitalized US-Japan alliance and Washington's widening and deepening regional "rebalance," there is good reason to assume he might, thus explaining Ms. Koike's optimism.

    Ms. Koike does not mention the deep division within the Japanese body-politic on Tokyo's strategic trajectory. There is widespread support for Mr Abe's economic revitalization programme - hence the LDP's electoral successes. However, on the question of Tokyo amending its constitution so as to enable its armed forces to assume far more expansive regional and global security roles than hitherto, especially in opposition to China, opinion even among LDP supporters appears to be divided.

    A revived Japan would be a great advantage not just for the Japanese population, but also for the rest of Asia, indeed, the world. However, a reinvigorated Japan that pursued strategic opposition to China, deepening the Sino-US systemic competitive dynamics even further than they already are, and dividing the region into permanently adversarial camps, could force China into an even greater nationalistic, defensive and insecure frame of collective thinking than is currently apparent. Such a development would be potentially dangerous for all the parties irrespective of short-term domestic electoral gains that might flow from it.

    With the US-China-Japan strategic triangle at the heart of the Asia-Pacific subsystemic security architecture, Japan could play the pivotal role of making this either an adversarial, or a collaborative, structure. Tokyo has this unique and privileged position of being able to make an epochal choice. Is the LDP able to make the choice that is right not just for Japan, but also for everyone else in the region, and the wider world?

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