Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

In Japan under Shinzo Abe, more power to the PM, but to what end?

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slithers away from accountability for various scandals, let’s consider some of his other sins. As one of Japan’s longest-serving premiers he has left an indelible mark, but is he a transformative leader?

Yes, in terms of security policy and centralizing power in the prime minister’s office, but not so much in terms of regional reconciliation, the economy, university education or gender bias. Abe injected some swagger into a nation reeling from the 2011 natural and nuclear disasters, and also raised hopes that the “lost decades” are over. In terms of identity politics and culture wars he chalked up significant successes for his reactionary base, but he has stoked the politics of intolerance, and by trying to rehabilitate Japan’s wartime past, he has repeatedly shifted the spotlight away from Japan’s impressive post-1945 achievements to the nation’s most dishonorable era.

While Abe’s super-active diplomacy marks a departure from his predecessors, he did not chart new paths, mostly taking cues from Washington. The vision of transformation he conjured up during his first year in office has never been realized. Even so, unlike many of his predecessors, Abe will not be a forgettable figure, if only because he understood the theater of politics and orchestrated it quite effectively.

Abe’s skilled PR team generated a constant flow of announcements, mostly controlling the media narrative while Abe strode assertively on the international stage. But has he delivered on his 2013 declaration that “Japan is back”?

Alas, not in terms of spending on public education. Japan is dead last in the OECD, investing just 3.2 percent of GDP compared to an average of 4.4 percent across the 34-member bloc. In terms of higher education, public financial support in Japan stands at a lowly 34 percent of total costs, less than half the OECD average of 70 percent. Earlier this year Abe suggested that the Constitution should be revised to guarantee free higher education, but this looks like a prime example of his usual empty grandstanding on issues, going for the headline without working out the details.

If Abe truly wants to revive Japan and establish a sustainable basis for economic growth, why not invest more in university education? Making it free without making it better seems pointless. The benefits of higher education in a knowledge-based economy are essential if Japan is to have a hope of remaining competitive.

Much is made of Japan’s tight labor market, but many good jobs go begging because of skill shortages in certain sectors. Universities are not producing enough graduates with sought-after skills. The three arrows of 21st-century education should be foreign-language proficiency, critical thinking and computer literacy, but employers tell me these are not being nurtured. Remedying this doesn’t mean abandoning the liberal arts, but the status quo suggests that programs in the aforementioned fields are not demanding enough, poorly taught and lack necessary facilities.

Why should foreign students spend time and money on mediocre education in Japan? In global rankings Japan’s universities are also-rans. The nation’s under-investment in higher education is manifest in the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The University of Tokyo is ranked at 46, down seven notches, while Kyoto University is 74th. In contrast, China has two universities in the top 30.

Government funding accounts for half of Japanese universities’ budgets, but such expenditures have dropped by 12 percent between 2004 and 2015. More spending on university education won’t be like waving a magic wand, but it is certainly crucial if the Japanese government is serious about producing better-prepared graduates and sustainable economic development.

It is a question of priorities. As we discovered earlier this year, the education ministry sees universities as plum post-retirement postings for its staff, while former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, one of Abe’s cronies caught up in a financial scandal, sees them as sites for nurturing patriotism. In 2015 he demanded that the national flag be displayed and anthem sung at entrance and graduation ceremonies of public universities.

As The Japan Times lamented in a June 2015 editorial, this “is the opposite of the widely accepted principle that universities should be kept at a distance from state power so they can remain independent in conducting education and academic studies. Abe’s viewpoint is a threat to the autonomy of universities and making light of academic freedom guaranteed under Article 23 of the Constitution.”

The editorial added: “Abe and Shimomura do not seem to understand the basic principle that patriotism should be nurtured spontaneously and that criticism of government policies is an expression of love of the nation.” Sadly, Abe’s apologists and toadies disingenuously try to conflate criticism of Abe with Japan-bashing; the 83 percent of Japanese who don’t trust Abe respectfully disagree.

Abe’s dumbing down of education is also evident in new textbooks approved by the education ministry in 2015. Forthright history is being sacrificed on the altar of Abe’s patriotic education reforms, with the rampage through Nanking downgraded from a “massacre” to an “incident” and the military’s role in instigating group murder-suicides by Okinawans obscured, while forced labor and the “comfort women” are conspicuous in their absence. But ignorance of the past doesn’t mean that it will go away.

Another key legacy is the “Abe doctrine,” a game-changer because it lifts long-standing constitutional constraints on the military. The prime minister alone gets to decide if a situation meets relevant criteria requiring the dispatch of troops to engage in collective self-defense anywhere in the world, with no need to consult the Diet.

This enhancement of the prime minster’s executive powers in security matters is unprecedented and the subject of Aurelia George Mulgan’s recent publication “The Abe Administration and the Rise of the Prime Ministerial Executive.” She astutely analyzes how Abe has moved resolutely to centralize power in the prime minister’s office. In doing so, he has politicized personnel appointments to ensure that “yes men” rise, discordant voices are marginalized and ministries are brought to heel.

Sayonara readers, this is my final discordant Counterpoint after 3½ years. I have written for The Japan Times since 1988, mostly as a book reviewer, and learned a lot and met some great people along the way. Kudos to the professionals who over the years have made the JT the go-to source in English on Japan and with high hopes that the new owners will maintain the rich 120-year tradition of reporting “all the news without fear or favor.”

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

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