Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is back and so, it appears, is Japan. The yen is down, the Nikkei up, and approval ratings and expectations for the new government are sky high.
“Abenomics” is the new buzzword in and outside of Japan as unprecedented optimism weakens the perception that Japan will never overcome stagnation or its slow decline. Restaurants in Tokyo are brimming with customers who are running up sales of luxury goods, while occupancy rates at five-star hotels hit record highs in March. Even CEOs of foreign multinationals are flocking back to Japan, eager not to miss the potential revival of Asia’s former heavyweight.
Hype or not, most domestic and foreign observers agree that Abe’s first four months were impressive. There are three main reasons for this: luck, good work and good PR.
First, the Abe administration’s luck stems from the lack of any viable domestic opposition. The Democratic Party of Japan is down and the only two charismatic politicians, Shintaro Ishihara and Toru Hashimoto, are still figuring out what their new party stands for.
The economic environments of Europe and the United States have meanwhile stabilized, allowing for a massive depreciation of the yen — the main driver of and most visible factor behind the optimism in Japan. And with China and India losing some of their economic glimmer, Japan’s profile has risen by default.
Abe is also lucky that Washington has rediscovered Japan can be a reliable ally for keeping China in check after all. President Barack Obama has offered help where needed, starting with concessions for entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and promises of cheap shale gas exports.
Second, Abe and his new government have actually done some things right so far. His three-pronged policy of monetary expansion, flexible fiscal policy and a growth-oriented long-term strategy based on structural reform (the so-called three arrows of “Abenomics”) makes sense. He has already delivered on the first two elements.
More so, the new government has acted in a strategic and consistent way. Abe seems to have studied hard and learned a lot during his five years out of power. He now understands that his future, as well as that of the Liberal Democratic Party and Japan, depend most of all on the economy. Hence all other topics, e.g. rewriting the Constitution, have been put on the back burner.
The prime minister has correctly identified big business as a key ally and reached out to it on many occasions. He was the first prime minister in many years to visit the New Year reception of the influential Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association — a powerful symbolic gesture.
This and many similar steps helped him two months later to convince big corporations to accept above-average salary increases — a logical and crucial step supporting his pro-inflation policy.
The third factor explaining Abe’s success and popularity is simply good public relations strategy. Abe has assembled a team of experts and put them in key positions as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, public affairs advisor and speechwriter. These are Hiroshige Seko, a former communications director at NTT, Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former London correspondent for Nikkei Business, and Eiichi Hasegawa, a former Boston Consulting Advisor who used to be the Cabinet secretary for PR, respectively.
All understand the power of strategic communications. So does Isao Iijima, the mastermind behind the team. Iijama advised former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and staged his enormously popular theatrical style of politics.
Between 2001 and 2006, Koizumi primarily relied on sound bites, dynamic gestures and a rebel image to portray himself as the one “to dismantle the LDP.” Abe’s new media approach under his new Iijima team seems to have a more mature and strategic bent.
It is not built simply around the person, but rather on a steady flow of carefully timed policy announcements, public appearances and targeted interviews with several Cabinet members. Abe himself stays on message and — more remarkably — so does everybody else. Even his gaffe-prone finance minister, former Prime Minister Taro Aso, is exhibiting hitherto unknown qualities and discipline in this regard.
Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda added to the creative storytelling by introducing “qualitative” monetary easing. It is in this area where the new government has surprised and excelled so far.
The good PR has thus created the virtuous cycle of perceptions, expectations and reality that embodies Abe’s success and popularity. Carefully planned and executed communications have also played a key role in Abe’s most difficult mission so far, which was to enter the TPP negotiations without a major outcry from the public or his own party.
Anything other than a landslide victory in the Upper House election in July will be a big surprise. But what about thereafter? Will the Abe magic continue? Is there a chance for structural reforms and long-term growth to become reality?
The answers to these questions remain hidden in a crystal ball. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president of Takeda Pharmaceutical and chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) and one of the private-sectors members of Abe’s Industrial Competitiveness Council, got right to the point when he recently said: “The real uphill battle for the Abe administration starts now.”
But it is clear that Abe will need a good narrative, compelling story and additional personal positioning to convince his audiences to stay with him in the long run.
Back in 2006, Abe founded his policies on his ideal of Japan as a “beautiful country” — a vague idea that lacked specifics and did not appeal to anyone. This time, he needs to follow through on a hands-on approach that addresses real policy issues with a clear communication strategy accompanied by fitting key messages and proof points.
The overall message must be “reform,” and Abe’s primary positioning must become that of a reformer. There is no other positive term or concept that is likewise understandable and appealing to the majority of the people.
The concept of reform is not limited to a single time period. It is sufficiently comprehensive for all upcoming challenges, whether they be economic, political or societal in nature. Just think of Abe’s desire to change the Constitution. He might do so successfully if perceived as a reformer, but not as a revisionist.
But most of all, he should remember “It’s the economy, stupid.”
For Japan, structural reforms are the key to sustainable growth. A successful PR and marketing strategy alone will not bring them about. Otherwise Koizumi would have achieved a more lasting legacy. The opponents of reform are numerous and are part and parcel of Japanese society.
As of today, an Abenomics-led revival of Japan is merely wishful thinking. A virtuous cycle of creating and shifting perception and reality in the long run — a technique that could be called a self-fulfilling prophecy — can only succeed with effective communications.
It seems Abe has learned this lesson and is silently employing PR as the “fourth arrow” of Abenomics.
Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. View his blog at www.cncblogs.jp.