Does Abenomics Still Motivate Shinzo Abe?

July 8, 2015Japanby East Asia Forum

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Abenomics really needs to be tried before it can work.

Around the world, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is perhaps most famous for his ‘Abenomics’ program to revive Japan’s economy. So far, it has not worked — mainly because it has not really been tried. Only the first of the famous ‘three arrows’ — monetary stimulus — has been fired. The indispensable third arrow, structural reform, remains lots of nice-sounding targets but little strategy to achieve them.

Abe became prime minister to institute the policies about which he cares. However, his heart does not beat to the rhythm of reform and revival. Rather, his pulse races to the tunes of military security, overturning history’s verdict on Japan’s wartime actions in the 1930s and 1940s, and revising the constitution.

Achieving at least the appearance of good economic performance is a means to keep up his approval ratings in order to achieve policy dominance. Abe is one of just two prime ministers in the past 25 years to serve more than two years consecutively. His 50 percent approval rating is the highest of any long-serving prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s and, before that, Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s.

Politics is about building up political capital and then choosing how to spend it. It is hard to think of a single major economic issue on which Abe has been willing to spend his political capital to really challenge a powerful domestic constituency. Instead, he is risking his approval ratings on issues of security and history.

There are two groups of politicians who wish to have Japan take an active role in collective self-defence and constitutional revision. The first group is motivated by cool consideration of present-day threat assessments. Abe, however, belongs to the second group, which is driven not just by present-day realities, but also by a romanticised view of the 1930s and 1940s. Abe in particular is devoted to restoring the ‘honour’ of his beloved grandfather and role model, Nobuo Kishi, as well as the entire generation of wartime leaders.

Kishi served in Tojo’s wartime cabinet, spent three years in Sugamo Prison as a suspected Class-A war criminal, and became prime minister in the late 1950s. Upon being elected to the Japanese Diet in 1993, Abe joined an Liberal Democratic Party ‘study group’ that published a book in 1995 calling the World War II a war for self-defence and denying that Japan committed war crimes like the Nanking Massacre and the forced recruitment of ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves). In February 1997, Abe formed another group of Diet members with similar views and became its executive director. Half of his cabinet ministers are members. He is forcing through changes in school textbooks to better reflect his revisionist view of history.

Despite all this, the accusation from some in Asia that Abe wants to — or could — lead Japan back to militarism akin to the 1930s is completely outlandish. Japan’s actions back then were an artifact of that era in world history and Japan’s own status as a traditional, rural, pre-democratic society. Today, Japan is a modern democratic society in alliance with the United States. There is no going back.

What drives Shinzo Abe? is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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