NEW YORK – Shinzo Abe, new president of the Liberal Democratic Party, is an ideological, young leader set to rally nationalist supporters, but his influence will be limited largely by his lack of executive experience and the growing U.S. rapprochement with China, says Japan expert Gerald Curtis.
Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University who is widely seen as one of the top Japan observers in the U.S., expressed his view at a recent forum at New York’s Asia Society.
Japan’s 5 1/2-year run under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may soon become an “important and very entertaining intermission” in the history of modern Japanese politics, but things will likely return to normal under Abe, Curtis said.
“Whatever Mr. Abe tries to do, one thing he cannot do is to run politics like Mr. Koizumi. Because if he does, he won’t even last until next summer’s Upper House election,” he said.
Curtis said Koizumi could get away with his top-down executive style because of his immense public popularity and because the LDP was “afraid of getting rid of him.”
“If Mr. Abe tries to do the same, the party will revolt. Because they know Mr. Abe doesn’t have the strength that Mr. Koizumi had,” he said, adding that Abe also has never held a Cabinet post except for chief Cabinet secretary, which is basically a spokesman position, he said.
Koizumi’s biggest achievement, Curtis said, was that he made the public feel optimistic again and convinced them to “swallow the bitter pills,” namely a series of market reforms and spending cuts to address Japan’s enormous fiscal deficit.
But Abe will likely have a tough time convincing the public to support continued spending cuts and a possible consumption tax increase at a time when many people feel reforms have given rise to social inequality, which is in fact the consequence of 15 years of deflation, he said.
Curtis believes Abe will not be able to postpone debate on the consumption tax hike much longer.
“One of the reasons there is a fiscal deficit in Japan is very simple. The Japanese enjoy the social welfare services of a continental European country at the tax obligation of the U.S. The gap is the fiscal deficit. You can’t have both for much longer,” he said.
Meanwhile, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea hit an all-time low during Koizumi’s tenure because of his repeated visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.
Now Beijing and Seoul appear finally ready to mend relations with Tokyo, and Abe himself has expressed enthusiasm about visiting Beijing possibly by the end of the year.
But Curtis says he is worried about Abe, because Abe is different from Koizumi in one very important respect: “Abe is ideological where Koizumi is sentimental.”
“Koizumi’s view of Yasukuni Shrine is very simple,” Curtis said. Koizumi goes there simply to pay respects to the young men killed during the war, and he does not care if his shrine visits as prime minister help convey a political message that it was a glorious war, Curtis said.
Curtis highlighted the fact that Koizumi believes Japan committed war crimes, but Abe has problems with this view and questions the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
“He is much more ideological. It’s very dangerous for Mr. Abe to push these ideological issues too hard because at some point, it’s going to create a very negative reaction elsewhere, including the United States,” Curtis said.
For now, Abe appears to be in tune with hardliners in the Bush administration over North Korea. But the Bush administration may decide to move in a different direction because of its increasing dialogue with China, he said.
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