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.

  • Treskatae

    “why he has made so little progress on economics reforms” is what you guys sent out in the e-mail.

  • Richard Solomon

    An excellent analysis of the extent to which Abe’s myopic focus on remaking ‘a beautiful Japan’ via collective self defense has taken up practically all of his time and energy in the last year or more. The article fails to note two things. First, the so called reforms he has introduced to the economy are largely superficial gestures rather than anything substantial.

    Second, Abe lacks the backbone to confront and reform crony capitalism in Japan. The existing economic and corporate powers that be hold far too much sway over any proposals he might make. So he created far too few new daycare slots for children whose mothers might want to return to work. Or he talks about wanting to see 30% of executive positions go to women but does not try to do that even within his own government. Or he results to change tax laws which give incentives for married women with children NOT to work. Or the recent pay raises form labor fall far short of giving workers a substantial boost in income which they could use for spending.

    Any one, let alone a combination, of such measures could boost the economy. But Abe has failed to enact them.

  • sparkystiltskin

    Abe is a cunning politician. He is fundamentally right of center and cooped a left of center agenda, namely structural reform and womenomics to make him look like a pragmatic centrist, and in turn gained the popular support he needed to slip this military reform in.
    But what most people don’t understand about all this military saber rattling is that very little will change when the laws do, a little know fact in civilian circles is that Japan, with its JSDF, is actually the 5th strongest military in terms of force deployment (translation: other countries have bigger armies but they cant move them anywhere.)

  • Bernadette Soubirous

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is doing a great job. He and President Obama have everything under control. Pay close attention to the Russians. President Putin likes Japan and the Japanese people so he will support Abe. The Russians do not trust the Chinese. Follow what the Australians do. Japans weakness will be the low birth rate issues. The future will be about all those Chinese men who can’t find a wife. There are only so many Filipinas. Those unmarried men will look to Japan to find a wife. Therein lies the future.

    • TomokoHasegawa

      Putin just signed a treaty of close military partnership and cooperation with China. So you’re absolutely wrong. Japan is an ally of the West so Putin doesn’t like “Japan and the Japanese people”. These days, nobody really does anymore. Sad, eh?

  • Paul Martin

    Abe’s grandfather was a class A war criminal, you would expect taking that into consideration that the LAST thing on his mind and agendas would be nuclear refurbishments or militarisms ! America strangely continues to protect Japan and South Korea when they are quite capable of defending themselves !

    But no one is threatening Japan therfore military expansionisms or adventurisms are completely unecessary !

    In reality it is all a subterfuge to distract the voters from a disastrous economic future dwelling on the horizon.

    There is probably a massive earthquake due momentarily so Abe and his yes men cohorts will have plenty to worry about besides SDF !

    • Aurora

      Do you really what class A war criminal means? The reason they were classified as class “A” war criminal, can you really explain to me?

      And what, you said,

      >But no one is threatening Japan therfore military expansionisms or adventurisms are completely unecessary !

      LOL! You are a dreamer!

      • Paul Martin

        Well we’ll see whose dreaming, if Trump gets elected Japan and Korea may just have to take care of themselves without BIG brother !

      • Aurora

        Not able to explain what class A war criminal?
        Dreaming Of Trump becoming POTUS. That’s not even Trump dreams of. LOL!
        And U.S. army is not POTUS’s toy, baby.
        U.S. Navy’s in Japan because of geopolitics.
        Grow up, baby! LOL!

      • Paul Martin

        I am a former navy commander so I am familiar with naval ops,etc.
        The navy, like all other US mil. branches is under the ultimate authority of POTUS !
        Without US protection Japan, Korea and most of Asia Pacific would be under domination of China and even North Korea without ANY balance of power !
        But, that being said, Asia needs America, including for trade,more than the US needs them !

      • Aurora

        I simply can’t believe US navy used to have an idiot like you as a commander.
        Your sense of geopolitics is simply disastrous.
        You are just racist against Asians, specially Japanese, as simple as that.
        Where did you station? At least top people of US navy in Pearl Harbor truly understand why Japan-US alliance is so important.
        And you yet haven’t answered what class A war criminal is!! Idiot. People of US navy in Pearl Harbor knew that. And they also said they already learned that what the truth of Pearl Harbor attack is, like which provoked the other.
        Because you’re so ignorant and racist, US navy kicked you out?

      • Paul Martin

        And I can’t believe the Japan Times or any other publication would permit publishing comments offensive morons like you who obviously only want to personally attack people !

      • Aurora

        Whatever you said, you are RACIST. R-A-C-I-S-T!
        That won’t change.

        >Japan and Korea may just have to take care of themselves without BIG brother !

        And you are a supporter of D.Trump!



      • Paul Martin

        I am NO racist fool because I am mixed race myself lol !

      • Aurora

        And the answer to my question?
        Why don’t you just admit you know nothing about “class A war criminal “?

      • Paul Martin

        A violation of established protections of the laws of war, which is defined by
        international law—e.g., the Hague and Geneva Conventions
        Examples of war
        crimes Mistreatment, deportation, enslavement,etc.

        General McArthur went to great lengths to save Hirohito and his cronies from justice, but in reality they were as class A as they come !

        Now scholars, history professors and diplomats Worldwide are demanding Abe come clean and stop trying to whitewash the miseries that Japan caused during WW2 !

  • Jason

    Instead of criticising Abe that he did not do enough in his third arrow, the media should have explain why is it not enough. Give us actual details and provide actual evidence that his policies failed or succeeded. Just telling us, he did not do enough is vague and you guys have been saying this since dec 2014. Please give us something newsworthy. You are the media, you are not the opposition or the supreme court or judge.

    • TomokoHasegawa

      Not every article can repeat all the facts…you have to read more in order to get the whole picture.
      Look at the quarterly Japanese economic numbers since Abe has taken office. Basically, his policies have only weakened the Yen, but the expected growth has not happened.

      • Aurora

        What about the decline of the rate of suicide? The increase of employment and the stock rate?

  • boonteetan

    The tragedy of Abe is that he does not know what he is doing will lead to a greater tragedy. Maybe worse, the real tragedy is he pretends not to know.

  • Kazuhiro Shino

    Japan never change pacifist cult chapter 9 admiration like religious ritual there’s no factual analysis no logic realistically even if Japan spent 10% for defence there’s no risk of world war ll type expansion sea lane is Japanese life line which is now compromised by Chinese occupation of disputed territory realistic & cheapest deterrence is nuclear missile system but which is too tall task to persuade public navy & air force enforcement is imperative submarines even air craft carrier invisible spy planes & fighter jets are desirable defence

    • TomokoHasegawa

      The only reason Japan was allowed to become a rich, successful economy was because of the pacifist constitution and its inherent promise to not repeat history. If powerful people in Japan want to change that, than Japan’s allies in the world will change their view on Japan drastically.
      Post WWII was the best time for Japan in all history, because it was based on respect and friendship. People who want to change this status quo are dangerous. If Japan continues to create lots of problems (meiwaku) for the US and other allies, then it will be soon be alone against everybody.

      • Aurora

        Hey, sick cult!

  • Kazuhiro Shino

    Japan never change pacifist cult chapter 9 admiration like religious ritual there’s no factual analysis no logic realistically even if Japan spent 10% for defence there’s no risk of world war ll type expansion sea lane is Japanese life line which is now compromised by Chinese occupation of disputed territory realistic & cheapest deterrence is nuclear missile system but which is too tall task to persuade public navy & air force enforcement is imperative submarines even air craft carrier invisible spy planes & fighter jets are desirable defence