Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may struggle to implement reforms even if he secures another mandate from voters in the upcoming Lower House election, according to some overseas analysts.
While Abe may make some progress on trade and nuclear energy, radical structural reforms and changes to the Constitution may prove harder to pull off, the analysts say.
They also fear a new Abe administration might veer to the right, further souring relations with China and South Korea.
Although Abe billed this election as a referendum on his decision to delay a second-round hike in the consumption tax, some foreign observers believe Abe may be using it to capitalize on divisions in the opposition and to force through reforms.
“I think Abe might feel bolder to push ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact negotiations and make concessions on agricultural policy, relatively safe in the knowledge that he doesn’t have to curry favor with the agricultural sector,” said Ian Neary, a professor of Japanese politics at Oxford University.
“Because he’s under less pressure and has a new mandate he can move ahead maybe more quickly with restarting nuclear power stations. It’s also possible that he may proceed with constitutional issues,” Neary said.
Abe wants Japan to play a more proactive role in defense — a move welcomed by European governments — and has reinterpreted the Constitution to permit the country to engage in collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of allies under attack.
But some analysts believe Abe ultimately wants to revise the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, which is seen by many as preventing Japan from sending troops overseas.
Neary thinks changing Article 9 would be too controversial but he argues that the prime minister may try to amend the “softer target” of Article 96 on the procedure for revising the Constitution — thereby lowering the hurdle for an amendment.
“Abe is probably thinking about his legacy and, if all he did was to revise 96, in order to pave the way for changing Article 9, then I think that would be enough for him,” he said.
Sarah Hyde, a Japan specialist at Kent University, thinks that rather than tinkering with the Constitution, Abe will follow the path of successive governments and introduce new laws.
“He may change either the name of the Self-Defense Forces to, in effect, an army, or change its capacity and limitations. Abe wants the election in order to give him a mandate to send troops abroad,” she said.
Abe will probably continue with his “nationalistic” approach to history, she added.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British ambassador to Japan, welcomes the moves on collective self-defense but worries a reinvigorated Abe government could take Japan further to the right.
“My concern is how far will it go?” he said, referring to defense reforms. “Will it be used as an excuse to make other changes which could be damaging, such as changing the Constitution or applying security laws to Japan?
“I hope Japanese parliamentarians are up to the job of ensuring that the government does not exceed or misuse its powers in ways that are damaging to human rights and democratic institutions,” he said.
Since his election in 2012, Abe has enjoyed a high profile in Europe. The media has taken great interest in “Abenomics,” his policy of aggressive monetary easing, public spending and structural reform.
Janet Hunter, an expert on Japan’s economic history at the London School of Economics, believes that consumption will recover despite recent figures indicating the economy has contracted.
But she fears the far-reaching structural reforms advocated by Abe will take a long time to materialize.
“Abe’s aspirations are good, but putting them into practice is difficult and I think that sometimes he has underestimated that,” she said.
Hunter expects Abe to pursue the same economic policies but said he may come under pressure from within the LDP to rein in public spending and introduce the rise in consumption tax sooner than planned.
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