Abe gets negative reviews ahead of U.S. visit


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.

  • Richard Solomon

    DeWit has been very critical of the way in which the power monopolies use feed in tariffs to justify not accepting more renewable power from other sources. This is the first time I have read that DeWit has something positive to say about some aspects of the government’s policies regarding renewable energy. I’d like to see/read more about this.

  • Liars N. Fools

    So who delivers the most important review? One answer is the Obama administration which desperately needs two things out of Abe Shinzo.

    One is the perception of and/or actual palpable Japanese military backing in pursuit of its strategic aims in the region, I.e., against North Korea and against China. South Korea is completely on board deterring North Korea but even though the South rejects China’s blandishments to diminish the former’s alliance with America, South Korea is most decidedly not signed on to a potential conflict with China. In this environment, the pusilamity of Abe Shinzo against China is welcome — as witnessed the fawning of Ashton Carter towards Abe Shinzo particularly with reference to the China challenge.

    Second, the Obama administration needs the TPP and that agreement is overwhelmingly about getting Japan on board. Japan’s international economic activity is virtually the same as the total of the ten remaining partners in the TPP, not including the United States. Abe Shinzo is necessary for delivering TPP. He has already taken the steps against JA, and he has even hinted that TPP is part of his third arrow, credible or not.

    The Obama administration may feel uncomfortable with the historical revisionism of Abe Shinzo and has even been in nudging mode, but the Obama administration is dependent on the devil who is there and not the angel who does not exist at the top of the Japanese government.

  • Japanese Bull Fighter

    Am I the only one who finds it curious that only one Japanese is cited for an opinion in this article? Do all Japanese commentators and academics love “Abe and the Revisionists” and there is only one Japanese in all of Japan who can supply a suitably negative opinion of Abe? That’s certainly not my sense. There’s no shortage of Japanese language commentary critical of “Abe and the Revisionists.”

    Citing foreign commentary at an eight or nine to one ratio relative to Japanese commentary leaves the impression that the author of this article (1) either thinks white guys know more about Japan than virtually all Japanese or (2) the author lacks the Japanese language skills and connections to Japanese academia and journalism that would allow him to contact and cite the many Japanese who think that “Abe and the Revisionists” are bad news.

    • Liars N. Fools

      As I suggested, the most important review should come from Americans in America, especially in Washington not Americans and other westerners who do not live in America. Maybe Kingston just knows the latter group far better.

      Mainstream Americans like Rich Armitage are putting a much more benign view of Abe Shinzo, as is Obama and his very heavily pro-Japan crowd at the NSC and in the State and Defense Departments.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        I agree that in terms of US-Japan relations, how his visit is evaluated by members of the Obama administration and members of both political parties is what is important, not what expat academics think and certainly not what some British academic thinks about his policies in an area unrelated to US-Japan issues.

        Judging by Kingston’s past commentary, he simply wants to knock Abe, and to make it look like his own view is the general view of Abe. He collects negative statements about Abe wherever he can get them with the least effort and without needing to be fluent in Japanese.

        I don’t like Abe but I have no enthusiasm for Kingston and his name calling (“hot air Abe”) or his citation of any and every expat who can provide an anti-Abe sound bite. As you say, for this particular topic, which Kingston himself selected, he should be looking at Obama administration officials that matter, but if he is going to cite academics and commentators, he ought to be citing Japanese academics and commentators who have a substantial following, not gaijin bloggers and academics who are part of a mutual admiration society.

        The Japan Times says that it is “the world’s window on Japan” or something to that effect. In practice, much of the content is “the world’s window on whinging gaijin in Japan.”

    • JSS00

      I think it’s because it’s about how America thinks of Abe?

  • Romjpn

    Abenomics is becoming catastrophic for Japan. The average Mr. Sato is not benefiting at all from these HUGE flow of money.
    We need a quantitative easing for the people, coming directly from the central bank into the bank accounts of everyone here. With that you’ll get proper inflation.

  • Nick Anderson

    I think it’s a little hyperbolic to say Abe is threatening Japan’s democracy, I don’t really like the guy, but their political system produces a pretty high rate of turnover, if they don’t like him he won’t be around very long, and while I don’t have much trust in Abe I do have faith in Emperor Akihito to put him in check when he’s being an ass, as he did over the issue of revising history a few months back.

    • JSS00

      Uh, Emperor Akihito is pretty much powerless, he can’t really do anything about it. I think Abe IS threatening democracy in Japan, by introducing the State Secrecy laws, as well as putting pressures on the media to not criticize the government in any ways.

      • Nick Anderson

        He has about ten times more influence in his country than the Queen of England has in hers, on the rare occasions he or another member of the Imperial family speak the people listen, it was only 80 years ago that the Japanese worshiped the emperor as a living god.

      • JSS00

        Having a single hereditary emperor telling people what to think is even less democratic. Besides, what he says will likely get carefully checked by the administration.

      • Nick Anderson

        No, it won’t be, he’s the emperor, you understand what an emperor is, don’t you? He might not possess any hard political authority but he wields massive influence and no prime minister would dare tell him what he can and can’t say, it’s the other way around, the Imperial family has already shut Abe up about revising history with just a casual comment. And I’m not saying it’s democratic, but the Imperial family has been the voice of reason in Japan since they forced their surrender in WW2, despite a coup attempt from the military in response to that decision.

      • JSS00

        Uh, you should check your sources. What he says is strictly checked, since by law the Emperor isn’t allowed to meddle with the political affairs.

      • Nick Anderson

        The constitution of Japan grants him no political authority while naming him the face of the nation, he can say whatever the hell he wants, he just can’t give orders, and he doesn’t need to, he asks, and it happens.

      • J.P. Bunny

        Not really. Taisho Tenno was hidden away for several years. Officially he was recovering from illness. In reality, not right in the head. Hirohito had wanted to study history, but was steered away to something less controversial. Hirohito himself has said that he was a bird in a gilded cage. The present emperor stated that he had wanted to visit Palau for many years, but needed permission from his handlers. He has also wanted to visit China for some time, but no way will he be allowed to go.

        The emperor can make statements that will embarrass the PM, but that’s about it. The Imperial Household Agency controls the emperor, and the government controls the IHA’s purse strings. Uppity emperors tend to spend their remaining years away from the public “recovering from various illnesses.”

      • Nick Anderson

        Dude you’re taking it back all the way to Imperial Japan, how does practices from over 70 years ago have any relevance today?

      • J.P. Bunny

        The emperor was considered a god back then. Even then then his so called power was almost nothing. The Sons of Heaven often found themselves at the mercy of those actually running the show. Considering that the emperor has nowhere near as much “power” nowadays, there is no way he wields massive influence. A nice guy, but not a player.

      • Nick Anderson

        The Emperor was considered a God by the PEOPLE back then, to his council and to his ministers he was merely a puppet and a figurehead, now thanks to their constitution and 70 years of democracy, he’s just a figurehead, but one whose voice the people still pay very close attention to and the Imperial family doesn’t speak very often, so when they do, that voice carries about 10,000 tons of weight.

      • J.P. Bunny

        He was considered a god by his ministers, council, the various shogunates, etc. A direct descendent of Amaterasu, one of the reasons why, unlike England, the same family has continued to rule all these centuries. He could be hidden away, ignored, forced to do the bidding of his handlers, but his line was always kept intact.
        The Imperial family doesn’t speak often, and when it does, it speaks with very carefully scripted words that are as middle of the road as possible.
        Thus endeth the lesson.

  • Jean-Michel Levy

    I completely agree with Japanese Bull Fighter. As a non-American, non-English-language educated gaijin, I often get the impression that the Japan Times is nothing but some kind of private club for American Japan residents who, being frustrated of not having the success they so much deserved back home, spend most of their time criticizing the country where
    they have found a niche. The lack of charisma of Mr. Abe and his amazingly clumsy tentatives of whitewashing the crimes of the imperial army in the apparent hope of improving the image of Japan today make him an easy target, even for poor hunters. However, it is apparent that the suspicion of a desire to run the clock backwards and return to imperial, militarist war time Japan is un founded. Maybe the Japan Times could try to secure the collaboration of a few Japanese authors, even at the cost of a little translating.

  • JSS00

    All I see is failures ahead. The Abe administration is way too reckless and thoughtless, and I can’t see something like this continuing for a long time in the future. It’s bound to fail soon.