Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Abe gets negative reviews ahead of U.S. visit

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

At the end of this month Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Washington, D.C. He can expect the red carpet treatment because he has ticked more boxes on the Pentagon’s wish list than all his postwar predecessors combined.

The generals and wonks see him as their man in Japan, a reliable ally who delivers. However, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently met Abe and came away rather unimpressed, pointing out that Abe has not delivered.

“Abenomics,” once touted as the tonic for what ails the Japanese economy, appears to be tanking and seems to be little more than welfare for the wealthy — a recent NHK poll found that 90 percent of Japanese believe they are not benefitting. The value of the yen has plummeted by a third, but exports have not increased as expected, the economy remains in the doldrums and household income is stagnant. In the recent round of wage increases, the majority of workers got stiffed and even the big firms were parsimonious.

Japan Inc. may be flush with cash, but they are not buying into Abenomics or boosting domestic investments. The feel-good factor from the doubling of the stock market average hasn’t trickled down because less than 15 percent of households own stocks. Moreover, Abe’s slashing of social welfare programs means that the needy and vulnerable have become even more so. For Japan’s women and youth, the real problem is that recent job expansion is concentrated in low-paid, nonregular work as the brass ring of full-time employment proves ever more elusive.

“Abe’s interpretation of ‘womenomics’ is a top-down approach that focuses on increasing the presence of women in leadership positions,” said Helen Macnaughtan at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, “without a clear strategy to question the everyday gendered norms and practices in Japanese corporate culture and society that act as strong impediments to career opportunities for women.”

Thus Macnaughtan believes that Abenomics is reinforcing “the gendered pattern of employment that has prevailed in Japan for decades.”

I asked Sophia University’s Koichi Nakano about Abe, though you should be warned that a Japanese government official actually requested one foreign correspondent not to interview Nakano because he is “unreliable” — inadvertently boosting his credibility.

“Rather like air guitarists, Abe is an ‘air nationalist,’ ” Nakano said. “There is a lot of exaggerated motions and lip-synching, but it is all fake and empty. He delivers precious little to the nation.”

All that posturing on historical revisionism and fanning anti-Chinese and anti-Korean sentiments are diversions from the failure of Abenomics and his “selling out to the U.S. on TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal), collective self-defense and Henoko relocation.”

Sven Saaler, a Sophia University historian, finds an “inherent contradiction between Japan’s reliance on the U.S. in terms of security policy and the strongly anti-American notion of Abe’s program of ‘overcoming the postwar regime,’ which means a rejection of the reforms of democratization and demilitarization undertaken under U.S. occupation right after the war.”

Although Abe publicly emphasizes that Japan and the United States share the same values, Saaler thinks that Abe’s agenda “is clearly directed against the values of democracy and freedom and aim at a return to Japan’s prewar and wartime values.”

R. Taggart Murphy, author of the acclaimed “Japan and the Shackles of the Past” (2014) and a professor at the University of Tsukuba, thinks much the same.

Abe is, he says, “a fairly competent political tactician who has some capacity to learn from his mistakes, but he has not changed his fundamental goal: to tear up the postwar settlement. He has demonstrable difficulty keeping that goal under wraps even though his dreams are shared by only a smallish minority of the Japanese population.”

Murphy thinks that American policymakers “don’t care because Japan doesn’t matter to them beyond its utility as a pawn in the chess game they fancy themselves playing with Beijing.”

Roger Pulvers, my prolific predecessor at Counterpoint, recently published “Hoshizuna Monogatari,” a novel written in Japanese. He opines that Abe’s “policies, both domestic and international, comprise a sincere and utterly consistent attempt to recreate the Meiji-era model of national unity and the postwar paradigm of state-sponsored corporate stimulus. This regime, while bursting with ideological ardor and conviction, is clearly out of date and bound to falter.” Thus, Pulvers confesses optimism about Japan’s future, ” because this ‘old order’ is clearly focusing the debate and unwittingly paving the way for genuine change.”

Michael Cucek teaches about political leadership at Sophia University, and insightfully discusses politics on his blog, Shisaku (www.shisaku.blogspot.com).

“Abe is thin in most of the normal criteria for leadership in a meritocratic, democratic system,” he wrote in an email. “A person talking about Abe’s charisma, listening skills, judgment, generosity, vision, physical bravery and flair for the theatrical would be speaking for a very brief time indeed.”

This means, according to Cucek, that the prime minister does not inspire confidence or engage passion.

“Indeed, he achieves the opposite: The longer he talks about a policy, the less popular it becomes. I have sarcastically dubbed this capacity ‘Abe Magic,'” he says.

Cucek also coined the term “Abe paradox” in reference to persistently high support for the Abe Cabinet and limited support for any of his signature policies.

“The Abe government has sufficient political capital to take on tough problems and at the same time no solutions to those problems the public is ready to accept,” says Cucek, delivering a rather damning assessment.

Ready for some good news? Andrew DeWit, a public policy specialist at Rikkyo University, is critical of Abe’s nuclear restart agenda, but gives him credit for incentivizing local institutions that are “rolling out smart and distributed (power) generation that includes biomass, biogas, geothermal and other generation that the utilities can’t whine is ‘intermittent.’

“They’re pumping significant fiscal and administrative resources into efficiency and renewables, under the rubric of distributed energy for resilience and local energy autonomy,” DeWit says.

Brad Glosserman, executive director at Pacific Forum CSIS, finds Abe a confounding figure.

It’s his reluctance “to repeat verbatim the statements that have served as benchmarks for Japanese policy and official views of history,” Glosserman says. “If he believes that they are correct, then why not do so?”

Noting that this is the bare minimum required, in his view Abe’s evasiveness is counterproductive because neighbors will see this as far “more than just a poke in the eye, but a blatant disregard for their sentiment.”

In commemorating the 70th anniversary of surrender, Glosserman believes Japan must address the distinct concerns of Asian nations, and that this will determine the success of Abe’s diplomacy.

“We are ultimately talking about moral issues and what is so disheartening is the seeming failure of Japan (at least this administration) to see that is the case,” he says.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.