Commentary / Japan

Is Japan heading for a leadership vacuum?

by Yuki Tatsumi

On Sept. 20, Shinzo Abe won a third term in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election and extended his tenure as prime minister beyond this fall. If he serves the full three years and leaves office in the fall of 2021, he will have become the nation’s longest-service prime minister.

Already much has been discussed about what Abe wants to or should try to achieve in his final years as prime minister. So far the focus of this discussion seems to be mostly on how aggressively he might push for constitutional revision — a goal he has long desired to pursue.

However, what is more important for Japan is to begin the inevitable discussion that everyone has been carefully avoiding — what will the nation’s political leadership look like in the post-Abe era?

In the last 30 years, there have been three long-serving prime ministers: Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987), Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) and Abe. Despite serving in different times, they share several features as leaders.

First is their decision-making style. Defying the consensus-building tradition in the LDP, they all insisted on exerting their authority as prime minister. Nakasone, who served before the government went through a big structural change with the reorganization and streamlining of governmental agencies in 1998, tried to exercise his leadership as prime minister by relying heavily on private advisory policy councils. Both Koizumi and Abe enjoyed the benefits of the government reorganization, which structurally allowed the prime minister greater room to lead, further bolstered the authority of the prime minister by consolidating the key policy- and decision-making functions in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Second, they all advocated that Japan play a robust role in the international arena. Nakasone — sharply reversing the course from his predecessor, who hesitated to call Japan-U.S. security relations as “an alliance” — surprised everyone by referring to Japan as an “unsinkable aircraft career” when he discussed of Japan’s role as a U.S. ally during a 1983 visit to the United States.

Koizumi laid the ground for the institutional and functional reform of the Self-Defense Forces by paving the way for Japan to participate in the international community’s efforts to support Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Abe has been conducting robust diplomacy that is anchored in the concept of “proactive contribution to international peace.” Building on the achievements of the Koizumi era and important policy changes made by the Democratic Party of Japan’s Noda administration on the export of Japanese defense equipment and technology, he also freed Japan from some self-imposed constraints on defense policy, and successfully passed the Peace and Security Legislation — a defense-reform legislative package — to allow the SDF greater room to engage overseas.

Finally, all three leaders enhanced their domestic political standing by forging close personal relationships with U.S. presidents. The world was reminded of a close relationship between Nakasone and U.S. President Ronald Reagan when he was one of a very small group of world leaders who were invited to Reagan’s 2004 funeral in Washington. Koizumi’s close relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush is also well-known.

Abe, overcoming an apparent difference in personality, managed to build a very close working relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama. Although its effectiveness is sometimes called into question, he has also invested a great deal of time and energy in building a close personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, which seems to work in his favor.

What is less known is the shared political landscape that emerged in the post-Nakasone and post-Koizumi years. After Nakasone’s departure in November 1987, Japan experienced a series of prime ministers who had a consensus-based, cautious leadership style and considerably short tenures — ranging from 64 days to a little over two years — with the LDP falling from power for a short period of time between 1993-1994.

Following Koizumi’s departure in 2006, Japan entered an almost seven-year leadership vacuum, with revolving door prime ministers until Abe returned to power in December 2012. The LDP also spent time in the opposition during the three years of DPJ rule between 2009-2012.

In today’s political landscape, one thing looks very similar to post-Nakasone and post-Koizumi Japan. The Sept. 20 LDP presidential election demonstrated that Abe remains the dominant leader in the LDP. While there are a few “hopefuls” that may succeed him when he leaves, including former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, there is neither an heir apparent nor anyone known for their decisive leadership style. The only other politician that is widely popular and displays potential to emerge as a strong leader in the LDP is Shinjiro Koizumi, but even he admits that he is not quite ready for prime time. This raises the possibility of a long leadership vacuum in the party.

What is very different about the post-Abe political landscape from those in the past is the almost complete absence of a credible opposition force. While short-lived, the non-LDP coalition that emerged in post-Nakasone Japan enjoyed strong backing from the public, which was tired of seemingly never-ending corruption scandals involving senior LDP politicians whose evasive way of handling the allegations against them exacerbated public wariness of the LDP. There was hope that a new political coalition led by Morihiro Hosokawa would offer a fresh alternative to the LDP.

When the DPJ emerged as the majority party after two national election victories — the Upper House election in 2007 and the Lower House election in 2009 — and led a non-LDP government, there was a great enthusiasm for the potential changes that the new DPJ government could bring to politics.

Today, however, there is no such enthusiasm for an opposition party. A public opinion poll conducted by NHK in mid-September shows that while support for the LDP is not great — hovering at approximately 36 percent — it still has a larger support base than all the other political parties combined. With 43 percent of the poll respondents not supporting any particular political party, and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan — technically the “largest” opposition party — attracting less than 5 percent support, there is no alternative to the current LDP-Komeito coalition.

In short, what we can anticipate in post-Abe politics is the continuation of the LDP-Komeito ruling coalition for the foreseeable future, but with far weaker leadership at the top.

Abe’s success, however, will face many pressing issues, both domestic and international, that cannot wait for a consensus to be formed before being addressed. From geopolitical challenges such as North Korea, China and Russia to domestic economic and societal issues including how to achieve a sustainable economy recovery while addressing the ballooning fiscal deficit, and the aging and shrinking population, they are all complicated issues that might require politically unpopular yet necessary decisions.

If Abe’s successor is not up for this task and can only muddle through it, Japan could find itself sliding back into another period of prolonged stagnation.

Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

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