Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a polarizing figure, lauded as the resolute leader Japan needs to revive its flagging fortunes and slammed for mishandling history issues in ways that undermine national interests.
The Abe conundrum is how he manages to retain a high degree of popularity despite strong public opposition to his signature policies on state secrecy, arms exports, patriotic education, collective self-defense and nuclear reactor restarts — especially now that “Abenomics” seems to be fizzling out.
The prime minister knows what imploding popular support feels like. He rode high on support during his first stint as premier (2006-07) until March 2007 when he sparked a firestorm of international criticism by quibbling about the degree of coercion used in recruiting young Koreans to work as comfort women in Japan’s wartime system of sexual slavery. He subsequently sealed his fate by appearing unconcerned about lost pension records, leading the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a drubbing in the 2007 upper house elections.
So what is Abe’s magic now? Partly it’s a crack PR team that manages the news, browbeats critics and projects a vigorous and optimistic image that appeals to voters, but he is also fortunate that the opposition is in utter disarray.
There is no effective leader exploiting Abe’s vulnerability by hammering away at his unpopular policies and proposing credible alternatives. So people may know what policies they don’t like, but turning that into a swing against the prime minister requires someone to make the case. Right now it seems likely that Abe will be re-elected when he decides to call elections, even if 80 percent of people say they are not benefitting from Abenomics and have little expectation they will.
Another puzzle is that Abe has the Diet votes he needs to translate his third arrow of structural reforms into binding legislation and thereby realize the growth strategy markets impatiently await, but he seems to be dithering. In June he announced over 200 structural reform initiatives, but there are few signs of tangible progress on this agenda. The first two arrows of Abenomics, monetary easing and fiscal stimulus, were aimed at facilitating bold reforms, but Abe has been slow to advance them. This is possibly because the LDP represents powerful vested interests that stand to lose if he does.
In the final months of 2014, Abe faces various challenges. In Okinawa, political opposition to the presence of U.S. bases remains strong, and incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima will have trouble convincing local voters that he cut a good deal with Tokyo by greenlighting the controversial Henoko base building project in exchange for a promised closing of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and truckloads of cash. If Nakaima were to lose it would be a blow to Abe, but the central government is determined to proceed with or without voter support.
Abe is also under fire for his advocacy of nuclear power despite deep public misgivings about safety issues and concerns that the lessons of Fukushima are being ignored. Adding to Abe’s woes is the recent release of interim U.S.-Japan defense guidelines clarifying that this is a global alliance requiring commensurate Japanese participation, meaning that Abe’s reassurances about the limited scope of his reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution allowing for collective self-defense are hogwash.
Come December, Abe has to decide on whether to proceed with the planned consumption tax hike to 10 percent next October. Problematically, the economy cratered earlier this year after hiking the tax from 5 percent to 8 percent, with GDP declining at an annualized rate of 7.1 percent in the second quarter, far more than his advisers anticipated. If he proceeds with the tax increase he risks stifling recovery, but if he postpones it would be an admission that Abenomics is not delivering. Much hinges on this decision and it may prove a decisive moment in defining his legacy.
Despite such an ambitious agenda and all these problems to grapple with, Abe is still getting bogged down in wartime history. In the Diet on Oct. 3 and again on Oct. 6, Abe discussed comfort women issues, a distraction from the pressing business of government that raises questions about his priorities. Abe suggested that the building of comfort women memorials in the United States was due to the misunderstanding caused by the Asahi Shimbun’s erroneous reporting in the 1990s that drew in part on the discredited testimony of Seiji Yoshida, a veteran who lied about witnessing coercive recruiting in colonial Korea.
Abe’s comfort women problem, and the building of comfort women memorials in the States, is a self-inflicted wound based on a disingenuous disregard for the facts. The 1993 Kono Statement symbolizes the end of Japan’s collective amnesia about state responsibility for the comfort women system and this vastly improved Japan’s reputation. Alas, Abe’s repeated acts of sabotage against the Kono Statement inflict considerable harm on Japan’s international standing and raises questions about his judgment.
The 2007 U.S. Congressional resolution H Res 121 condemning Abe for his comfort women remarks was not based on Yoshida’s testimony and did not depend on the Asahi’s reporting. H Res 121 was based on the volumes of evidence that have been amassed over the years that implicated Japan’s military and government in the comfort women system.
Ironically, it is Abe, not the Asahi, who incited the building of comfort women memorials in four towns in the United States. Korean-Americans lobbying to erect these memorials were reacting to his controversial 2007 statements about the recruitment of comfort women. One of the key organizations promoting the memorials named itself “121” in reference to the congressional resolution that slammed the prime minister for his duplicitous comments.
Abe’s recent grandstanding makes it look like Japan is trying to wriggle out of taking responsibility for the horrors it inflicted on comfort women and thereby sullies the nation’s dignity. In the 21st century, violence against women in war is a significant international concern, one shared by civil society groups in Japan. Forcing and deceiving women into sexual slavery is a global problem and Japan could gain so much by unequivocally accepting responsibility, officially apologizing and legally atoning for ruining these women’s lives while leading a global effort to address this contemporary scourge.
Instead, Abe has positioned Japan to get steamrollered by the international community on this issue, while also undermining any credibility he has on gender issues. Moreover, Abe makes things awkward for Japan’s friends who do not want to be associated with his dubious equivocations. Abe is right to support empowering women today, but wrong in heedlessly trampling on the dignity of women victimized in the past and thereby trifling with Japan’s honor.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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