Abe’s arrows still missing the mark

Author: Nobumasa Akiyama, Hitotsubashi University

2015 could be remembered as a glorious year for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As Abe ended 2014 with a surprise visit to Yasukuni Shrine — provoking harsh criticism from close neighbours — many anticipated that the most daunting task for Abe in 2015 would be to properly manage issues regarding the war history.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at his first press conference of the year at the Prime Minister’s Office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo on January 4 2016. (Photo: AAP).

Abe expressed his remorse on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in various speeches at the Australian parliament, the Asia–Africa Conference in Indonesia, the joint session of the US Congress and Senate, and on the commemoration day of 15 August.

The speeches were largely well-received by international audiences, though China and South Korea, as well as Abe’s supporters on the right, did not seem satisfied. Yet Abe avoided making major concessions to China and South Korea and was still able to realise the trilateral Japan–South Korea–China summit meeting in October. Japan’s bilateral relationships with China and South Korea are slowly moving forward as mutual strategic and economic needs arise.

Beyond the history issue, Abe made remarkable achievements on unpopular policies including new security legislation and the conclusion of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, all while maintaining a relatively high approval rate. Behind his success there was a great deal of pragmatic political calculations both at home and abroad.

His biggest political accomplishment was the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution and the subsequent enactment of new security legislation. The reinterpretation allows the Japanese government to exercise the right of collective self-defence, though only in a limited manner. The new legislation provides a more sound foundation for Japan to take on a larger role in its alliance with the United States and to further its commitment to international peace operations. In light of China’s recent assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, this shift in Japan’s security policy was welcomed by not only by the United States, but also by Asian countries who hope to enhance their security cooperation with Japan.

At home Abe faced serious political challenges. A July survey of constitutional lawyers showed that the overwhelming majority of respondents considered the reinterpretation of Article 9 and the subsequent security legislation to be unconstitutional. Other surveys indicated that the public was also cautious about changing Japan’s basic legal framework for security. And tens of thousands engaged in public protests against the new security policy.

Another major achievement for Abe was the conclusion of TPP negotiations. A major focal point of the negotiation was the liberalisation of the domestic agricultural market. The agricultural sector, represented by the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu) — historically a major supporter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — strongly opposed the TPP. Despite such strong opposition from its domestic constituency, the LDP reversed its 2012 election commitments, pursued the TPP and successfully concluded negotiations.

Even with the pursuit of these unpopular issues, Abe’s approval rate did not drastically decline. His approval rate reached its lowest point (34 per cent) at the height of the Diet deliberations over the security bills in September. But a survey conducted after the passage of the bills showed that Abe’s approval has since recovered to 41 per cent, and it keeps on increasing. Demonstrations against new security legislation have gradually shrunk and JA-Zenchu has grown relatively quiet.

The weakening of opposition parties was also a bonus for Abe. The LDP’s biggest political rival, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was deeply divided over responses to the new security legislation. Party leaders wishing to abandon the security legislation were inclined toward cooperation with the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and citizens’ movements such as Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, a left-wing movement opposing the legislation. Yet conservative branches of the DPJ were opposed to any association with JCP or radical citizens’ movements. This divide may lead the DPJ to split early next year. The second largest opposition, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) broke up due to intraparty tensions.

Abe’s successful foreign policy activity contrasts sharply with Japan’s economic landscape. The ‘three arrows’ of Abenomics announced in 2012 have not put the Japanese economy back on a secure, steady growth track. Although the Nikkei index recovered to 20,000 yen (about US$162) in June, an increase of more than 20 per cent from the beginning of the year, the rate of GDP growth was negative in two consecutive quarters. More worrying for Abe is the fact that currently 80 per cent of people do not believe there has been an economic recovery. The government also plans to increase the consumption tax rate from 8 per cent to 10 per cent in April 2017 in order to achieve primary balance by financial year 2020. But this would require significant economic recovery.

In order to boost growth, the government announced the new ‘three arrows’ of Abe’s economic policy. These focus on building the foundations for economic growth, namely a target of a 20 per cent increase in GDP to JPY600 trillion (US$4.9 trillion) by 2020, child-rearing assistance to boost the low birth rate and social security measures to increase nursing facilities for the elderly.

But the majority of Japan remains pessimistic and does not believe that the economy will improve under Abenomics. Abe and his government have not been successful in gaining public confidence on economic policy. This suggests that, ultimately, the economy may determine the fate of his cabinet.

2015 could indeed be remembered as a glorious year for Shinzo Abe — but it may yet turn out very differently.

Nobumasa Akiyama is Professor at the Graduate Law School and the School of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University.

Editor’s note: since the time of writing Japan and South Korea have also signed a landmark agreement that is intended to resolve the so-called ‘comfort women’ issue between the two countries.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.