Commentary / Japan

The tragedy of Shinzo Abe

by Christopher Hobson

Special To The Japan Times

Since returning to power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been remarkably active in his attempts to strengthen Japan. Devoid of a serious opposition, and with limited dissent inside the Liberal Democratic Party, he has had a comparatively free hand to pursue his agenda. What has Abe done with all of this political capital?

Abe’s policies have been directed toward “normalizing” Japan’s defense and military posture, reinvigorating the ailing economy and advancing his conservative agenda at home. While Abe has been exerting great energy in pursuing many of his goals, the great tragedy of his prime ministership is that it may instead go down as one of the most significant missed opportunities for modern Japan. Abe might be on track for outlasting the life of most Japanese prime ministers, but one must wonder whether longevity will end up ranking amongst his greatest achievements.

Until recently, Abe had garnered most attention for his seemingly ambitious economic policy, dubbed “Abenomics,” although “Kurodanomics” would be a more accurate title, considering it is the head of the Bank of Japan who has done most of the work so far. Almost all analysts agree that Abenomics has suffered from a lack of serious movement with the “third arrow” — structural reform.

Given the strong political position Abe has occupied, this was a golden opportunity to push ahead with the difficult but very necessary task of overcoming vested interests and opening up Japan’s economy. And without this vital third arrow, Abe’s economic policies are on track to leave the country deeper in debt and with exacerbated inequality. If Abe’s concern is with strengthening the position of Japan, one must wonder why he has made so little progress on the crucial issue of structural reform.

Instead, it increasingly appears that the key motivation for Abenomics was not economic, but political. In this regard, before the last election The Economist observed that, “Mr. Abe has radical ideas, but he is too averse to spending his political capital to implement them.” This is half right. Abe has not been too risk adverse to spend his political capital — he has just used it on the wrong radical ideas. Promises of economic regeneration have played a vital role in giving him the opportunity to pursue his core agenda of changing Japan’s postwar constitution.

In recent months any pretense about Abenomics being the primary concern of the LDP government has been dropped, with the focus firmly on pushing through unpopular legislation that will allow for the right of collective self-defense. In the case of “normalizing” Japan’s security policy, there are certainly serious arguments for doing so, given China’s increasing assertiveness and the uncertainties surrounding North Korea. And the proposed reforms do not represent such a drastic departure from the direction Japanese security policy has been heading over recent decades. Regardless, Abe has made little effort to properly justify his policy and engage with serious public debate, instead ignoring concerns and resorting to strong arm tactics. This has not only cost him political capital, but undermined the validity his original goals may have had.

While Abe and his nationalist supporters tend to regard the Constitution as being imposed by the United States, what this position fails to appreciate is the way that Japan has adopted and imbibed the spirit of Article 9. Reforming the Constitution will not change or greatly undermine the strong attachment to pacifism that has developed in this country. Even if these bills are enacted and this reinterpretation is confirmed, Japan will still have a uniquely dovish foreign policy compared to other countries of similar size and strength.

For all the concern about how Article 9 is being attacked, the approach adopted by Abe is far more problematic in the way it undermines constitutionalism and the rule of law. According to a recent Asahi Shimbun poll of experts, 104 of the 122 who responded concluded that the new security legislation is unconstitutional.

This matches with the testimony provided to the Lower House by three leading constitutionals scholars. Professor Yasuo Hasebe of Waseda determined that the reinterpretation “considerably damages legal stability and violates the Constitution.” Article 96 of the Constitution clearly provides for amendments, which Abe has chosen to ignore because it is highly unlikely the proposed changes would be approved in a referendum that is required.

One must be careful to avoid inflated rhetoric about the “totalitarian” or “fascist” behavior of Abe, but the approach taken definitely represents a threat to Japanese democracy.

As Craig Martin has explained in the pages of The Japan Times, the great danger of these attempts to reinterpret the Constitution is that it is a very slippery slope: “to permit such a reinterpretation of Article 9 would throw into question the integrity and meaning of all other provisions of the Constitution, and thus undermine the normative power of the entire Constitution.” Constitutions provide the basic framework for the rule of law; they are supposed to be difficult to change. While Abe argues that he is pursuing these policy changes to protect Japan, by attacking the legal foundations of this country’s democracy he is doing just the opposite.

Abe is certainly correct in thinking that Japan needs decisive leadership and bold reforms. It faces many intractable, long-term problems that can only be resolved through making difficult and, in some cases, painful decisions. The need for structural reform of the economy and to seriously address gender inequality are two particularly pressing issues that Abe has identified, but has failed to properly address. Instead, Abe has focused his energies on forcing through unpopular and unconstitutional changes that undermine the rule of law and Japanese democracy.

The great tragedy of Shinzo Abe is that he returned to power with a remarkable opportunity to pursue major reforms that could greatly increase this country’s chances of staying a “beautiful nation,” but trapped by a narrow, outdated ideology he has wasted this remarkable chance to strengthen Japan, the very thing he most desperately wants to do.

Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor of political science at Waseda University, and a visiting research fellow at United Nations University.