Commentary / Japan

Could Japan be ready for 'Koikenomics?'

By calling the snap election, Abe admits his three-pronged assault on deflation is a dud

In calling the latest of what’s been a five-year flurry of election after election, Shinzo Abe admitted what households have long known: Abenomics is a dud.

If the prime minister’s three-pronged assault on deflation were working, Japan wouldn’t need the ¥2 trillion package his Liberal Democratic Party is cobbling together. The government’s success at monetary easing, fiscal loosening and deregulation would, by now, be removing bureaucratic headwinds, encouraging a startup wave and prodding executives to fatten paychecks.

In September 2013, Abe captivated the investment world’s imagination with his talk of big bangs and shock therapy at the New York Stock Exchange. “Buy my Abenomics!” he urged traders, and they sure did. That year alone, the Nikkei 225 average surged 57 percent. When Abe returned to the world’s most famous trading floor recently, his message fell flat. His pledge to “single-mindedly … take action to reform Japan’s economic structure from the foundation up” stuck New Yorkers as odd. Uhhhh, then what exactly have you been doing since December 2012?

Kicking the economic can forward. Abe pulled off a few modest reforms on corporate governance and curbing the farm lobby, freeing him to pursue his real interest — constitutional revision to beef up national security. Calling elections, too. Abe has pulled off more contests than notable economic upgrades. That track record makes the snap election Abe just called for Oct. 22 a cynical waste of time, attention and public funds. Abe, remember, is reverting to the bad old LDP cycle of giant stimulus package, election. Giant stimulus package, election.

How to break this cycle? Enter Yuriko Koike, who’s leading the most compelling challenge to Abe yet. This week, the popular governor of Tokyo said she was launching her new Kibo no To (Party of Hope) party endeavoring to replace the hapless Democratic Party as the main contender to the LDP. And Koike said something that Abe glosses over: “Economically, the world is making a big move while Japan’s presence is gradually declining. Can we continue letting (the existing power structure) handle politics?”

The drop in average wages in July, the biggest in 25 months, and declining bonuses back up Koike’s argument. So does the decline in foreign capital flows into the Nikkei and Topix indexes. Overseas punters, it seems, realize Abenomics is a spent force.

Is “Koikenomics” the answer? If Abe’s LDP wins the snap election next month, the victory will reflect inertia, not popular trust. North Korea’s threats “will create tailwinds” for Abe’s re-election, says Scott Seaman of Eurasia Group. But polls show Abe’s cronyism scandals, penchant for ignoring popular opinion to alter the pacifist Constitution and the absence of wage gains make his days numbered. A win on Oct. 22 would be the political equivalent of the dead-cat bounce. Odds favor Koike’s star continuing to rise as Democratic Party members flock her way.

There’s reason to hope Koike would show more reformist backbone than Abe. She dared, for example, to ask why, oh why, is the budget for the 2020 Olympics already double what Tokyo estimated and still surging? Not only did Koike delay moving the Tsukiji fish market amid toxic soil concerns, but she dragged former Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in for questioning and queried ridiculous cost overruns. That showed incredible gumption. She’s rolling her eyes at the LDP’s craven support of the cigarette lobby and forging ahead to make Tokyo smoke-free.

Koike would surely implement clear policies to make “womenomics” a reality, not just a talking point. She brings less baggage to the China relationship (unlike Abe, her grandfather didn’t help oversee Imperial Japan’s brutal Manchuria occupation). Koike would probably be harder on Japan Inc., pressuring executives to diversity boardrooms and regain their innovative mojo. She cares more about inspiring entrepreneurship than devaluing the yen.

Koike wants to take on the nuclear lobby that has Abe’s party over a proverbial barrel. She favors reducing Japan’s carbon footprint to zero, while phasing out the reactors the public came to fear after the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This is less about fear than prosperity. No industry holds greater promise than inventing and selling ways for China, India, Indonesia and others to avoid choking on growth.

By contrast, Abe’s obsession with hawking nuclear technology for Hitachi and others is small beer compared with the renewables boom of tomorrow. So is investing in Donald Trump. Koike features many of the nationalist — and, sadly, some of the revisionist — views Abe espouses. But I doubt she’d outsource Tokyo’s foreign policy to Trump’s blustery and amateurish White House. If Abe thinks Mr. America First will let any benefits from whatever new demand in U.S. markets Japan plans to create filter back Tokyo’s way, he’s dreaming.

The same goes for spending another couple of trillion yen on education (without making it better) and other social services. It’s a short-term sugar high with zero chance of increasing competitiveness. Such short-termism is why Abenomics is sputtering. It’s also why attention should be shifting to how Koikenomics might do a whole lot better in the long run.

Tokyo-based journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”

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