National / Politics

Abe becomes Japan's longest-serving prime minister

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister on Wednesday, beating previous record holder Taro Katsura by having served for a total of 2,887 days, and vowed to work on tackling deflation and dealing with the nation’s graying population during the remainder of his term.

Abe’s term is calculated as an accumulated total of his first, brief stint as prime minister in 2006, and then his time further in the top position since 2012, which is now approaching eight years.

“I still have two years left of my term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party,” Abe told reporters at his office. “With the weight of that responsibility on my shoulders, I hope to continue pushing to resolve all of the policy issues we currently face, always maintaining the caution of my earlier days as prime minister.”

Abe’s time as prime minister has seen him tout Abenomics, push a contentious security law through the Diet, and pledge that he would create a society where “everyone will shine.” It also, however, has been peppered with scandals and setbacks, with two ministers quitting in close succession following Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle in September and Abe currently being accused of violating election laws by partially footing the bill for a dinner party hosted on the eve of an annual cherry blossom-viewing event. Abe has denied the accusation.

As issues that he would be tackling on during the remainder of his term, Abe raised “stopping the deflationary spiral, taking on the challenge of a declining and graying population and resolving postwar foreign policy problems.” He also added that “the issue of constitutional revision would follow,” referring to his long-held career ambition to revise the nation’s pacifist Constitution, which has remained unchanged since it was enacted in 1947.

His commitment to constitutional revision has been unswerving, yet has not seen much progress of late. Although it is commonly understood that Abe wants to revise the pacifist clause Article 9, as suggested in a proposal released by the LDP in 2017, the suggested changes have been unpalatable to the public. Some 60 percent of people are against any amendments to the Constitution under Abe, according to a poll of 1,922 valid responses conducted by Kyodo in March last year.

Abe is calling for a moderate revision that would add an “explicit” paragraph to Article 9 said to formalize the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces and put an end to a long-continuing academic debate on its constitutionality.

A bill that will tightly regulate the airing time of television commercials related to national referendums is under debate in the extraordinary Diet session that started in September. The special Diet committee on constitutional issues is debating it, after talks stalled for about half a year due to the opposition effectively boycotting discussions.

Critics have also been skeptical of the effects of Abenomics, pointing out that the country has yet to put a stop to deflation.

However, Izuru Makihara, a professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in Japanese politics and administrative systems, thinks differently. “Some may argue that he doesn’t have a legacy, but I do believe that — for better or for worse — the value of the yen has changed drastically,” he explained. “Couple that with monetary easing and the promotion of exports, and that has really changed how people perceive the Japanese economy, even though Abe hasn’t managed to tackle deflation.”

Makihara also believes that improving economic relations with neighboring countries through the TPP, as well as the security bill passed in 2015, are likely to become major landmarks of his stint as prime minister.

There are three main pillars supporting the length of Abe’s term as prime minister, Makihara points out. On the flip side of a disorganized and weak opposition is the “simple fact that Abe has continued to win national elections,” giving him support within the party and stabilizing his power.

“He has also maintained the core team of his Cabinet, who have supported him for seven years,” he added, pointing to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, special adviser to the prime minister Takaya Imai and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita as linchpins of his premiership that provide stability.

“Perhaps most importantly, Abe himself is not exceptional in any respect,” he explained, “but that has bestowed him with the humility of learning from the past and from his opponents to make sure he won’t fall from his position of power, as he did after his first stint as prime minister.”

Indeed, Abe appeared to be mindful of his past during his address to reporters earlier in the morning. “Based on deep reflection on my first, brief term as prime minister, I have been doing my very best to provide stability to the political situation of this nation,” Abe said. “During that time, the people have shown their support over the course of six national elections — both for the upper and lower houses — and I have put my best effort into realizing the policies I have promised to the people, every day,” he added.

Hiroshi Hirano, a professor at Gakushuin University who is well-versed in election analysis and political psychology, agrees.

“Drawing on the history of strengthening the prime minister’s office as the center of power, starting from the Koizumi era … Abe has managed to systemize the centralization of power and the influence the Prime Minister’s Office has over public perception,” Hirano explained.

“Abe himself doesn’t really have the charisma of his predecessors like Koizumi, but Abe has managed to use the prime ministerial role to his advantage. … He’s been successful in using the organizational makings of the office to exert his own leadership,” he added.