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Abe emerging as a rare strong leader

by and


Most Japanese prime ministers come and go, their names soon forgotten. Yasuhiro Nakasone was an exception in the 1980s, as was Junichiro Koizumi in the early years of this century. Now, Shinzo Abe could be emerging as one of the rare strong ones after his decisive election victory.

It is a surprising turn for a politician who flopped in his first stint as prime minister, succeeding Koizumi in 2006 and lasting just one year before stepping down, citing health reasons.

Since getting a second chance in late 2012, Abe has been one of the more effective prime ministers in recent years. Just surviving two years, longer than any of his five immediate predecessors, is an accomplishment.

His economic revitalization plan, dubbed “Abenomics,” revived growth and boosted stock prices until the economy recently lost steam, and he also pushed through difficult changes in national security policy over a divided public.

With a clear victory in Sunday’s election, which he forced by dissolving the Lower House last month, the 60-year-old Abe has reaffirmed his hold on power for up to four more years. Doubts remain about whether he can achieve his broader economic and political goals, which face opposition from both vested interests and the public.

But Abe appears confident and determined.

“The victory gives us strength to follow through on our political will,” he said Monday.

The prospect cheers right-wing nationalists, who see Abe as one of their own. It equally causes consternation among liberals, who fear he is moving the nation away from its post-World War II pacifist path.

The United States and other foreign partners have welcomed a leader with staying power who has gotten things done, though Abe’s nationalist leanings have strained ties with China and South Korea, both victims of Japan’s military aggression before and during World War II.

Love him or hate him, Abe is setting himself apart from Japan’s tradition of revolving-door prime ministers who last a year or so in office. Nakasone held on to power for nearly five years, and Koizumi slightly more. Political fortunes are difficult to predict, but Abe could well be on a similar track.

“It’s possible he will be considered a great prime minister like Koizumi,” said Yu Uchiyama, a Tokyo University professor and author of a book on the Koizumi administration and how it influenced Japanese politics. “The problem will be defense policy or foreign relations, especially with East Asian countries. If he can manage these issues, he can be a great prime minister.”

Abe is benefiting in part from good timing. He led his Liberal Democratic Party back to power in 2012 after voters lost confidence in the upstart Democratic Party of Japan, which ruled for three unsteady years, leaving the opposition divided and in disarray.

Voters are fairly evenly divided on Abe’s policies, but many felt there was no viable alternative to his party. So victory was virtually assured when he dissolved the Lower House. His party alone won 291 of the 475 seats, and its coalition with Komeito took a two-thirds majority.

Abe’s survival suggests that he has inspired a least a measure of confidence among voters, and some like his more assertive stance toward neighbors like China at a time when Japan’s clout in the world is receding.

He has also tried to learn from the mistakes of his first administration, when his heavy focus on a nationalist agenda sent his popularity tumbling.

“He was too ideological and he tried to rush those policies too quickly during his first administration,” said Hidetsugu Yagi, a conservative constitutional expert who is close to the prime minister. “Many people were puzzled over what he was trying to do.”

While Abe does not appear to have abandoned his nationalistic goals, including revising the Constitution, he has not been too outspoken in that way. Instead, he boned up on economics and shrewdly made that his main focus.

Abe is trying to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who lifted countries out of slumps, said Yagi, a professor at Reitaku University in the outskirts of Tokyo.

He also has become more hard-nosed as a politician, Yagi said, describing his recent dissolution of the Diet as tactical.

“I think he has become very wily, in a positive way,” he said.

Abe also has a role model in his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who held power for more than three years before resigning after ramming the U.S.-Japan security treaty through the Diet in 1960, over huge public protests.

As a child, he often visited his grandfather’s residence and once mimicked demonstrators’ chanting “No to the security alliance,” he wrote in a book laying out his vision.

Abe has praised Kishi’s move as an achievement that contributed to Japan’s security. Last July, he built on that legacy when his Cabinet approved a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution that divided public opinion and could allow the military to play a larger role in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“I think Abe is feeling a lot more confident and strong,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo. “And when you see the body language of Abe and his key ministers, they are confident. These are not people filled with doubts. They are not worried about public opinion. They think things are going according to plan and going their way.”

  • Hakime Seddik

    “Voters are fairly evenly divided on Abe’s policies, but many felt there was no viable alternative to his party. ”

    Many? You are kidding right? 24% of the population has voted for the LDP, and you call that many? Please stop this kind of propaganda for the LDP, it just helps them mislead people even further.

    Abe has nothing of a strong leader. How could a nationalist driven by his ego be a leader? He is just a liar, a manipulator and a dangerous supporter for social regression who has dubious connections with xenophobic groups.

    “His economic revitalization plan, dubbed “Abenomics,” revived growth and boosted stock prices until the economy recently lost steam”

    Which growth are you talking about? Again, you are making disinformation here that promotes the LDP. “Abenomics” never did anything positive besides stock prices increase. And how big is the proportion of the population which is concerned by stock price increase? I tell, you, almost null. Instead, the middle class population has been struggling to keep up with increased prices of anything dependent on the weak yen (energy, food, etc). And by the way, the economy didn’t just “lose steam”, it went into recession. Why don’t you call things by their name?

    “Abenomics” is nothing new in the LDP book, this is just the usual yen manipulation and waste of tax payer for the only sake of the benefits of a few vested interests (construction companies, etc). The LDP has always done the exact same policy albeit “Abenomics” goes even further in devaluing the yen. And what Abe did here also is to have an army of PR bureaucrats ordering the docile Japanese media to make “Abenomics” appear a new policy to the public. A Japanese population totally uneducated in politics and economy that believes whatever the government is telling.

    So please, you media have an important responsibility in providing correct informations. You are not supposed to be the “accomplice” of a conservative and nationalistic man which is driving Japan to the past.

  • jimbo jones

    shouldn’t this article be in the opinion section?

  • David Rothauser

    Following his recent landslide election victory, some political pundits perceive Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a strong leader. If a bully is perceived as strong, then Abe is certainly strong. More realistically Abe comes closer to being a 21st Century version of Adolf Hitler. This man, who’s passion it is to restore the glory of Japanese militarism to pre-World War Two standards while denying the atrocities committed by Japan during WWII, ie. rape, torture, enslavement, murder and forced prostitution (comfort women) must be perceived as a security threat to not only southeast Asia, but also as an international security threat to the world. We live in the nuclear age where the weapons of choice are nuclear weapons possessed by the world’s most powerful industrial nations. For Abe to compete on the illusory world stage as a “normal” power, he must develop nuclear weapons inside Japan, otherwise he will be seen as a paper tiger. To develop nuclear weapons at the current destructive level is to play a form of nuclear roulette with his own people. Can Mr. Abe afford that legacy?

  • Max Erimo

    “Abe emerging as a rare strong leader”. Nice eye-catching headline. Even if it makes one laugh. A strong leader does what has to be done, takes the tough decisions, and has a vision for the future.
    Mr. Abe worries about those that could take his job, delays the tough decisions, and continues to push Japan back to the past.
    He is a leader with no mandate who will do as he chooses. IF this was North Korea or China people would be up in arms about a dictator. Here in Japan he was democratically elected because there was n viable alternative.
    It was not because he is a strong leader.

  • jkanda

    Looking at that photo, it is hard to imagine that this is a serious leader. Country under recession, failure of his policies, but he is partying with young children… Others may think differently, but as for me, I would prefer seeing in a different setting…