OSAKA - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a puzzling fellow. He has a whole host of immensely, intensely difficult political, diplomatic, economic and social issues to sort out, which he is tackling — let’s be honest — not really very well. Yet now he has added a new, more contentious and potentially explosive problem, which he has declared he will solve by 2020.
Some supporters say he wants to claim his place in history — which is why he set so much store by winning the Olympics for Tokyo in 2020, and is getting the Liberal Democratic Party to change its rules so that he can still be prime minister in 2020 when Japan is host to the world.
Recently he has begun to talk with almost Messianic zeal about 2020, which he said would see the birth of a new Japan following revisions he wants to make to the Constitution. He should beware. Japan is a complex country carrying the heavy burden of history into a clash, and probably conflict, with its place in a complicated 21st century world.
Who can suggest brighter new ideas that might dissuade Abe and help him to steer the ship of state of Japan away from, not onto the rocks? It is part of the tragedy of Japan in 2017 that there are few alternative voices questioning existing policies and exploring new options. Japan’s establishment, in politics, bureaucracy, business, the universities and the media is rooted in stodgy past ways of behavior.
The real problem and real danger — which applies to economic, political and social issues as well as to contentious questions of the Constitution — is the old ways are not good enough: Japan needs new thinking and, particularly, needs to be aware of its place in the modern world, what is happening in the rest of the world, and what the rest of the world thinks of Japan.
Economically, Japan’s growth grumbles along at 1.2 to 1.5 percent. Years of quantitative easing (QE) have sent the stock market to a high 21st century plateau, though still way below the Nikkei’s December 1989 peak of 38,915.87. QE has helped to keep the yen soft and boosted export growth as a leading factor in keeping growth positive. Corporate profits were at an all-time high at the end of last year, even though some leading companies have badly stumbled.
But these good times have hardly filtered through to ordinary Japanese. Increasingly, Japan’s economic problems are being exacerbated by social and demographic factors as the population falls and becomes increasingly elderly, making the economy as a whole arthritic and in need of care and attention.
Abe has shown he understands some of the issues. The very idea of Abenomics involves recognition that there are problems that need solving. Why did Abe talk of three arrows and then fire only one? He has relied on Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda to do the job with monetary policy, which is like pushing on a piece of string.
The prime minister deliberately put the fiscal arrow back into the quiver in postponing the consumption tax hike, while continuing to suggest tax concessions to corporations. Reputed economists suggest the consumption tax will have to go to 20 percent or higher if Japan is to wrestle its budget back into balance.
Abe tried to sharpen the third arrow of structural reform but has failed to release it. Reforms have been made to corporate law, agriculture, deregulation, although they don’t go far enough to upgrade the economy to face a 21st century global marketplace.
Vested interests are fighting hard against substantial change, even on small things other countries have accepted as normal, such as no smoking in bars, restaurants and public spaces. Abe’s sensible urgings on companies to raise wages, to regularize the growing army of workers without permanent jobs and, most importantly, to promote women to key executive positions, have fallen on deaf ears. Suggestions of injecting youthful dynamism into the economy through immigrant workers inevitably fail because Japan must keep its population and culture pure.
Inexorable demographic facts of life and death will see Japan steadily sliding down global tables in economic muscle and prosperity. That’s not so bad if Japan accepts middling power status, except for the overhang of government debt and continuing deficit. To raise the consumption tax now to 15-20 percent would cause the economy to stall, but to wait to 2020 or beyond means Japan will not be able to afford health and social care for all.
Why is Abe talking of a shining new Japan from 2020 with a new Constitution boasting proper armed forces? It is still unclear whether he wants to rip up the Constitution or just neuter Article 9. Cynically, Japan already has a powerful military capable of giving China a bloody nose in any conflict, and the courts have not challenged it, so why does Abe want to tear the country apart by adding a sentence or a clause admitting to armed forces? That means he has to define what they can and cannot do, a dangerous exercise in dancing with contradictions concerning a peaceful military.
Leo Lewis in the Financial Times claimed, “The psychological impact on Japan and its sense of nationhood (of granting constitutionality to the Japanese military) will be immense.”
That’s nonsense. It might be immensely psychologically important for Abe to report to the spirit of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi that he has undermined a key clause in the American-imposed Constitution — but would ordinary Japanese prefer a new military name for the Self-Defense Forces or a peaceful and prosperous life in a peaceful and prosperous Asia?
What about the psychological impact of constitutional change on Japan’s neighbors, an instant red rag to bullying China, propaganda for North Korea and concern for South Korea? Who will pay if an arms race is triggered?
It’s depressing that discussions of an amended Constitution are largely going on within the confines of the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) and Liberal Democratic Party. It is time to come into the open to consider the costs and benefits — psychological, political, diplomatic and financial — of a completely rewritten or a tinkered constitution, or simply keeping the existing document while trying to address the real problems of a changing Japan in a changing world.
Kevin Rafferty, a veteran British journalist, has lived and worked in six Asian countries and reported from Washington under six U.S. presidents.