Since his return to power last December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s slick communications team has tried to make buzzwords and catchphrases a hallmark of his administration, using them to frame debate and capture public attention, especially on controversial policies.
First came “Abenomics,” the label for his unorthodox strategy of ending deflation and reviving the economy, followed by the phrase “proactive contributor to peace,” which was used to define his vision for the Japanese military. Most recently, the Abe government has become synonymous with the term “secrecy law.”
In the year that has passed since Abe became prime minister, he has been more active in reworking security and defense policy, an issue that has been close to his heart since his first brief stint in office from 2006 to 2007.
The stage for this contentious transition appeared to be set after the ruling bloc, led by his Liberal Democratic Party, secured control of both houses of the Diet in July. Abe thus won’t face any major hurdles until 2016, when his steering of the nation will be judged in a national election.
Amid his accomplishments have been two constants — his strategy of reshaping public sentiment and his pursuit of stronger state involvement and control, experts say.
“What has propelled Abe, no matter how vague it is, is this public excitement or euphoria about the administration because we haven’t seen a leader who can make good on his promises for some time,” said Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political psychology at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.
“When people are overwhelmed by such excitement, we tend to look on the positive side rather than the negative. The thinking goes that the economy is getting better, so we cannot help but accept some constraints on other aspects of our lives,” Hirano said.
Abenomics has raised expectations that the country will finally conquer deflation and has generated a feel-good effect among the public.
To increase control, the government then played up the severity of the security threats facing Japan so it could pass the contentious state secrecy law and impose tougher penalties on leakers of classified information. This it did by reminding a public already wary of giving the state stronger control over information, about how urgent it is to take steps to protect their safety and security.
The latest example is Japan’s first overarching security strategy, which focuses primarily on countering an increasingly assertive China, experts say, by stressing the need to foster “love for the country and region.”
Critics, however, warn against including patriotism in the strategy because they think it will infringe on the public’s right to freedom of thought and beliefs, as guaranteed by the same war-renouncing Constitution Abe is now trying to revise.
“It feels strange to include the issue of patriotism in a national strategy because it should be up to each person to decide whether they love their country. We don’t know what the government means by ‘love for the country’ in the first place,” said Hiroshi Nishihara, a professor of constitutional law at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“When a country tries to foster patriotism, it is often used as a tool to direct the energy (generated by it) toward achieving something outside, rather than inside the country,” Nishihara said. “This strategy imposes some kind of obligation to love the country in exchange for the protection or security provided by the country.”
Patriotism has been a sensitive issue, as it often revives painful memories of Japan’s defeat in World War II and raises the hackles of neighbors such as China and South Korea, who experienced Japanese aggression first-hand.
Some lawmakers in the ruling bloc argued that even though China may be a concern, references to it in the security strategy and defense plans should be “restrained,” with one of them saying “there is no use in fueling a confrontation with China by adding something aggressive.” A government official said that the patriotism issue was included after weighing “various factors.”
Initially, the phrase the government planned to use said Japan would “nurture love for the country.” Instead, it adopted the watered-down “to foster love for the country and region” at the urging of Buddhist-backed coalition partner New Komeito, which was wary of the move.
Still, the expression is reminiscent of the basic education law, the revision of which during Abe’s first term in office sparked criticism and opposition. But more changes are in the works, with the government studying the inclusion of moral education — now taught as an extracurricular activity — in the official curricula for public elementary and junior high schools.
In a similar move, the education minister has signaled that national guidelines for social studies textbooks might be revised to reflect “the spirit” of the education law.
Abe, who has chosen to use the word “historic” to describe the approval of the strategy and the revision of the education law in the past, may have to strike a delicate balance in light of public sentiment, the experts say.
He will likely try to avoid escalating tensions with China and South Korea so that summits can be held with them while pushing his policy agenda, which includes ending the ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense and revising the Constitution.
“Even though Abe’s support ratings fell after the secrecy law was rammed through, they still remain high. That shows people still believe Japan is moving toward something better,” Gakushuin’s Hirano said.
“But on second thought, we have yet to see what kind of a country Japan will become under Abe. He did raise public expectations, so it’s now time for him to give a clearer and more specific vision,” he said.