Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are in tatters, there has been no progress on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, strains with Washington persist, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks are at an impasse, whaling got harpooned and hopes for a deal with Russia on the northern territories seem to have evaporated in Crimea. There are also growing concerns that “Abenomics” is unsustainable as there has been little progress on structural reforms, employers did little to boost wages and business sentiments have tanked. Moreover, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is showing signs of internal dissension over a range of issues from Abenomics to security and national energy policy, and has festering problems with coalition partner New Komeito. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complains that U.S. President Barack Obama doesn’t know who his friends are and that he should be getting more credit for making progress on security issues Washington has long lobbied for. Mr. President, welcome to “Abe Land.”
But relax — don’t get too worked up by a little bad news, this is not “Abegeddon.” A sip of Team Abe’s Kool-Aid puts all this fretting in perspective. Readers interested in getting a relentlessly upbeat version of onward and upward Japan under Abe should consult the We Are Tomodachi section of the government’s website (www.japan.kantei.go.jp/letters)
This alternate reality reveals how Abe’s spin doctors are trying to shape perceptions, although it is so endlessly chirpy that it grates like an advertising jingle on an endless loop. Really, is this the best these pitchmen can do? In Abe Land, we read that Abenomics is progressing, “making the impossible possible.” Success, “depends on our will and our courage to set out to sea and sail without hesitation through the rough waves of the megacompetition encompassing the globe.” Children of Fukushima’s nuclear refugees will be welcome guests at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Cherry blossom festivals abound. We see Abe hobnobbing with world leaders, although Vladmir Putin of Russia, who he has met five times, is conspicuously missing from the photo lineup. We also see Abe inspecting Tohoku, meeting staff from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor, riding a tractor and visiting disaster shelters, showing he is a hands-on leader in his immaculate boilersuit. We learn he is drilling through the “Bedrock of Vested Interests,” countering media accounts that belittle his half-measures, advocacy for the nuclear industry and pro-business policies that leave some 80 percent of people feeling no benefits from Abenomics.
Fortunately, “The economic engine of Japan has revved up and the gas is flowing. It is ready to zoom forward.” The problem of contaminated water leaking from the Fukushima site into the ocean is tackled head on, “the key point is speedy processing.” No negativity about the frequent stoppages and glitches of the ALPS filtration system or the leaky tanks. Reassuringly, we also learn that the new Special Designated Secrets Act will not interfere with news gathering or otherwise compromise civil liberties. There are also sections on the abductee problem and “3 common misconceptions about the Senkaku Islands.” And in case you wondered, the three magic words are: oishii (delicious), tanoshii (having fun), and ureshii (feeling happy). And I always thought there was something magical about the 2007 kanji of the year when Abe imploded and resigned as premier: 偽 (nise) — fake.
We Are Tomodachi is a useful resource for foreign correspondents who want to escape the wrath of the Sankei Shimbun’s Takao Harakawa. He accuses them of being swayed by Chinese and Korean “blame Japan” propaganda. Harakawa was upset by international reporters at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club Japan asking tough questions about the comfort women system to conservative politicians who made presentations criticizing communities in the U.S. for erecting comfort women statues. Apparently doing what journalists get paid to do is evidence of bias against Japan. In Abe Land, it’s open season on foreign journalists who criticize Abe even though he recently joked in Diet interpellations that he is often referred to as human scum in the Japanese media.
Kaoru Yosano, an ex-LDP heavyweight who once served as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary in 2007, recently lashed out at the neo-con advisers that surround Abe. He likens the current LDP to Hitler Youth and is dismissive of Abenomics. Oddly, insiders say that hardly any veteran LDP members are enthusiastic about Abe and most have a low regard for him. But, they don’t dare express defiance in public.
One reason is Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, widely considered to be an adept politician and ruthless infighter. He is not worried about grumbling in the LDP ranks, pointing out that they are all so desperate for access that they will do as they are told. Often portrayed as the adult in the room, the responsible and steady hand that reins in the more frenzied elements in Team Abe, he is actually quite conservative and mostly shares Abe’s views. He asserts that Japanese diplomacy has been deft and effective and doesn’t think Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013 was a mistake. In his view, China and South Korea are desperate for a summit so Japan can bide its time. Shrugging off Crimea, he also expects a summit with Putin later this year in Tokyo.
Suga and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy have regular meetings and in one recent exchange, apparently she brought up the issue of comfort women. Insiders say that Suga was surprised that she did not know about the 1995 Asian Women’s Fund, a flawed attempt by Japan to assume moral responsibility and promote reconciliation by offering former comfort compensation and a letter of apology signed by the prime minister. If this is true, the U.S. Embassy staff responsible for briefing her fell down on the job.
On the comfort women issue Suga is as unrepentant as Abe, and thinks that the former comfort women lied in their testimony during a government investigation leading to the 1993 Kono Declaration. In his view, Tokyo cooperated with Seoul in crafting the statement as a gesture of goodwill that has not been reciprocated. While bowing to U.S. pressure not to overturn the Kono Declaration in which Japan acknowledges responsibility for coercively recruiting young women to serve in wartime military brothels, Suga is also backing a Diet panel to re-examine the testimony of former comfort women that was accepted as evidence in preparing the mea culpa. He understands that the panel’s findings will blast the testimony and roil relations with Seoul, but in Abe Land that’s South Korea’s problem. The opening of talks this past week between the two countries about the comfort women may yet lead to an overdue breakthrough, but this has proven a resilient impasse. Another sip of Kool-Aid, anyone?
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan