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Spinmeister Abe: crisis-mongering and distractions

by Jeff Kingston

The news media tends to hyperventilate because this generates a buzz that attracts attention.

But what is the news?

Team Abe’s slick PR machine has done a masterful job in managing and misdirecting news coverage by feeding the beast a daily dose of Abe in action and generating a series of sham crises and useful distractions.

Shinzo Abe is the busiest of Japanese premiers in memory, surely racking up more frequent-flyer miles and pressing the flesh with more national leaders (with the notable exceptions of China’s and South Korea’s) than the previous 10 prime ministers combined. He has also piled up enough policy pledges and PR releases to pave the trail all the way to the top of Mount Fuji — and these have all been dutifully reported as if they were truly news.

Apparently Abe learned a lot from his previous disastrous spell as prime minister in 2006-07. Back in 2007, he managed to alienate Washington and Seoul by quibbling about the level of coercion used in recruiting so-called comfort women (wartime sex slaves of the Imperial military). Oddly, he apologized only to the U.S. Congress but not to Korea, where most of the victims came from.

He followed those gaffes by caviling about Okinawans’ insistence, based on eyewitness reports, that Japanese soldiers instigated group suicides of civilians there in the closing stages of World War II. Whatever, the education ministry duly mandated changes in school textbooks to blur responsibility — enraging Okinawans and sparking massive protests.

Abe still has problems with history, but he has learned about image politics.

As Chief Cabinet Secretary from October 2005 until becoming prime minister in September 2006, he was Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s understudy, but Abe 1.0 never quite got the theater of politics despite having front-row seats to the kabuki premiership. When Koizumi put on Elvis’ shades he looked cool; when Abe put on Bono’s, he just looked like a dweeb in sunglasses.

But that was then. Abe is back and has received a charisma implant — or at least seems more aware of his showman’s role. And kudos to his PR team for making him look more like the real deal.

This time round, though, he and Koizumi no longer see eye to eye about nuclear power, and he stands accused of being in the pocket of those vested interests. There is, however, one sacred site where they share common ground: Yasukuni Shrine. Koizumi is well ahead of Abe, 6-1, on visits to the shrine while premier, and Super K also gets reactionary style points for making his last visit on the most taboo day of them all — August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

What was going on in Abe’s mind when he made his provocative pilgrimage the day after Christmas? Was this belated coal in the stocking for Beijing and Seoul because they had been naughty by stiff-arming all of Abe’s overtures?

It’s also no secret that he regretted not visiting Yasukuni when he was premier last time around because he embraces the unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime conduct that Yasukuni embodies. And maybe he felt it all would soon blow over, and that it was time to step out from under the long shadow of Koizumi, showing he too has the cojones.

But crisis-mongering is also about changing the channel, and Abe needed an effective distraction. First, he whiffed on structural reforms, the long-awaited “third arrow” of Abenomics. In June, when he underwhelmed markets with a déjà vu laundry list of inconsequential reforms, he promised that he would deliver in December. But he didn’t, because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party he heads represents the very vested interests that would be the target of structural reforms.

Second, Abe focused on ramming his secrecy legislation through the Diet, and the public doesn’t trust the government on this issue. Demonstrations slamming his media-muzzling law, combined with relentlessly unfavorable media coverage, made Team Abe concerned that the pendulum was swinging against him, imperiling his agenda of pro-nuclear advocacy and lifting constitutional constraints on the military.

It doesn’t help that national polls show hardly anyone believes they are benefitting from Abenomics, and that less than 20 percent of employers plan wage hikes. Soured public sentiments have a way of snowballing, and once a premier’s approval ratings start sliding, they continue to do so. Usually.

Time to launch a crisis or two.

First there was the sham crisis over China’s Air Defense Identification Zone, followed by that visit to Yasukuni Shrine — both designed to goad China into shrill blustering.

Beijing’s announcement of an ADIZ that overlaps Japan’s own extensive ADIZ triggered a media feeding frenzy, even if more than 20 nations have them. But then the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper revealed inconveniently that China first informed Japan about its intentions as far back as 2010. Fortunately for the Mainichi, it made its disclosure before the new secrets law comes into effect, because this is exactly the type of information that will be declared off-limits.

The ADIZ tempest in a teapot worked remarkably well in stoking anti-Chinese sentiments among Japanese by hyping security concerns. It helps that China has been throwing its weight around the region in ways that raise legitimate concerns about its hegemonic intentions. This, though, is indicative of an ongoing power shift rather than an urgent crisis.

Nonetheless, China as bogeyman is politically useful and helped Abe pass his secrecy law and establish a national security council. Beijing is also Abe’s trump card in promoting a new set of defense guidelines aimed at stretching the envelope of Japan’s constitutionally constrained military posture. The aims here are to justify collective self-defense and to lift the ban on arms exports — thereby showing Washington that Tokyo is a reliable ally.

Cutting the deal with Okinawa on moving the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko for around $25 billion over the next eight years also showed Japan in dutiful client-state mode. So Abe figured Washington would cut him some slack on Yasukuni. Wrong again.

Abe doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t get to unilaterally turn the page on history. Certainly postwar Japan has been exemplary as a force of peace and prosperity in Asia, but that doesn’t cancel out the past, precisely because Japan has never really got round to a full reckoning, nor commensurate contrition or amends.

But Abe does know how to unleash a useful crisis. Firing up domestic anxieties about a rising China, and provoking denunciations by China, helps to shift attention away from his own unpopular agenda. The Yasukuni provocation stoked a “rally around the leader” mentality, producing a bounce in Abe’s ebbing poll numbers while undermining opponents.

In this time of hyped national crisis, can Japan afford to respect civil rights, constitutional constraints and public opinion on issues ranging from nuclear energy to government transparency? Let’s hope so.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.