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New centrist conservatism

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It has been three years since the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in late 2012. Under no other administration in the 60-year history of the Liberal Democratic Party has Japan faced more harsh circumstances, both internally and externally.

To break out of long-term deflation, Abe’s government has administered the powerful medicine of quantitative easing in the Bank of Japan’s monetary policy. It has set the goal of raising the total fertility rate to 1.8 to address the declining population. It has also moved to beef up Japan’s deterrence in the face of China’s aggressive attempts to use force to change the regional maritime order. In all three examples, Abe’s administration has pursued qualitatively different policies than those undertaken by the LDP over the postwar period.

All three policies represent a departure from the trajectory of “postwar conservatism” nourished by the LDP, providing grounds for fears that they could undermine center-right politics in this country. This form of conservatism has been the foundation of the LDP politics from the administration of Hayato Ikeda to that of Keizo Obuchi. Its defining features were the LDP’s characterization as a national party that did not abandon the weak, the pursuit of an enlightened national interest based on the principle of international cooperation and a preference for fiscal health that provided for inter-generational fairness in terms of assets and opportunities.

The breakdown of this postwar conservatism is the result of a number of factors:

After the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s and onset of long-term deflation, the heavy pressures of economic mismanagement and budget deficits have generated a new politics in which distribution of the burden, not wealth, became the key agenda.

With the end of the Cold War, the discipline observed by conservative lawmakers to ameliorate class differences relaxed, while their ambitions to preemptively address social and political issues diminished.

China’s rise and South Korea’s offensive have changed the relative balance of power in the region, where Japan’s bilateral relations with both China and South Korea became a zero-sum game.

The introduction of single-seat electoral districts in Lower House elections has led to the emergence of a new breed of lawmakers under the strong influence of the top LDP leader, and a decline in the power of factional groups that used to sway the party’s balance of power.

The Internet revolution has triggered populism and the new phenomenon of “political theater.”

It was during the administration of Junichiro Koizumi that postwar conservatism began to crumble. Koizumi’s politics involved symbols (such as his visits to Yasukuni Shrine), catchy phrases (such as “destroy the LDP!”) and political “assassins” (fielded to defeat LDP opponents to his postal reform in the 2005 general election). Koizumi encouraged populism and pushed aside more moderate forms of politics and politicking in which policies were implemented step by step through persuasion and compromise.

Abe’s political style has added the stream of “reactionary conservatism” to this broader countercurrent to postwar conservatism. However, that kind of conservative politics would be unable to respond to the various challenges of the 21st century.

From now on, China will likely move toward both market despotism and an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine. Maintaining and strengthening the principles of liberal international order is the only way to push back against China. We must restore liberalism and free trade, and employ “quiet deterrence” in the face of China’s offensive. There is no longer a choice between “dovish” and “hawkish” approaches to China — we must remain vigilant “owls” instead.

It is essential that Japan squarely face up to the past, adopt a correct understanding of history and suppress nationalism. The Murayama statement (along with Abe’s statement last year on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which remained within the parameters of the 1995 statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama) should be the ballast for the nation’s historical understanding.

In an opinion survey, a full 74 percent of Japanese citizens continue to support the Murayama statement’s specifically worded reference to Japan’s “aggression” and offer of “apologies.” We must now construct a “new moderate conservatism,” rooted in the good sense of the Japanese people.

Japan in the future risks the simultaneous emergence of two trends: a polarization of the strong and weak due to globalization and the digital age, and state capitalist forms of government intervention in the market to compensate for the nation’s declining international competitiveness.

In his “History of Japanese Constitutional Government,” political historian Junji Banno observes, “In prewar Showa Japan, freedom tended to make a mockery of equality, and equality tended to create an easy link to despotism.” We now face the threat of a similar political dynamic unfolding.

Here again the politics of a new moderate conservatism will prove essential. To finally emerge from its “lost two decades,” Japan must restore growth, profits and competitiveness, and revive the liberal principles of self-help and self-reliance. This will also create a “big society” liberalism, rooted in social empathy and solidarity.

We have already witnessed several attempts to move toward this new moderate conservatism. The 1994 LDP-Socialist-Sakigake coalition government, the 1996 administrative reforms by Ryutaro Hashimoto, Yasuo Fukuda’s 2007 vision for a grand coalition, and the 2012 efforts by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and LDP chief Sadakazu Tanigaki for “comprehensive reforms” all contained the seeds of this new conservatism. Approaches to the Japan-U.S. alliance, historical understanding and fiscal reconstruction were at the heart of such endeavors, all of which ended in failure.

At the same time, we must fully comprehend the blind spots and limitations of postwar conservatism. These include “one-country pacifism,” problems arising from the nation’s wartime history, and issues surrounding women’s participation in society, child-rearing and population woes.

Japan first realized the limitations of its pacifism during the 1991 Gulf War, but this inertia has grown all the more deep-seated with time. The Murayama statement embarked on a public policy aimed at mitigating the negative legacies of history but failed to build up a political base capable of withstanding the subsequent conservative backlash. Issues related to women’s labor participation, child-rearing and demographic woes remain unaddressed, and represent an enormous barrier to the efforts to fight the possible “evaporation” of Japan’s population.

The Ikeda administration represented the starting point for postwar conservatism. Now is the time to return to his Cabinet’s spirit of “tolerance and fortitude,” and make a fresh start. Rather than veering further to the right for a showdown with the opposition, Japan’s political leaders should move leftward in order to proactively address the challenges confronting the nation.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism).

  • solodoctor

    Do ‘state capitalist forms of government intervention’ include the focused and timely use of tax incentives by the government to encourage corporations to hire more permanent, full-time employees; hire and promote more women; get corporations to provide more childcare programs; allow employees to take more time off for family matters like aging parents; substantial wage increases sompeople have more disposable income? So far Abe has not done any of these kinds of fiscal policies but relied on the BoJ to do most of mthe work.

    Would a move ‘leftward’ mean that the LDP/Abe will not try to revise Article 9 of the Constitution? Will he stop moving the American base on Okinawa because it is opposed by 70% of the people there? Don’t hold your breath on his backing down from either one of these two initiatives even though these are not supported by the vast majority of the voters.

    • soudeska

      Those are very good questions. This article doesn’t seem to have a comprehensible point or provide any concrete suggestions.

      • KenjiAd

        I read the article twice, and still have no clue what he is trying to say.