Commentary / Japan

The virtuous cycle keeping Abe in power

by Lully Miura

It seems that Japan remains unique among advanced democracies, for it does not seem to be suffering from a political backlash against elites and established institutions. The stability of its political establishment is remarkable, considering the nation has suffered from low growth throughout the so-called lost decades. Why is Japan, and Japan only, so stable, and will it last?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in his seventh year in office, but his popularity among the public is not fading, even though journalists point out it is because there is no viable alternative to replace him. Abe crushed Shigeru Ishiba, the only candidate who challenged him in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race last year, after he led the party to a big win in the Lower House election in 2017.

Some had speculated that Ishiba might be the more popular candidate in rural areas, which, due to the disparity in the value of votes under the current electoral system, will have a bigger say in this Sunday’s Upper House election, but LDP members didn’t want to change the face of their party.

Many LDP lawmakers elected to the Lower House no more than three times have never experienced another administration, or another LDP president. They have fought elections only under the leadership of Abe.

More senior LDP members suffered from the party’s bitter loss in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan took the government’s helm and reigned for three years. “Nightmare” was the expression used by Abe a month ago to describe those three years. It surely was to the LDP’s old guard. This is important because changes of government before 2009 happened only when “reformers” or outliers inside the LDP bolted from the party. This seems very unlikely to happen again in the near future. In other words, a next-generation Ichiro Ozawa — who effectively led the group that left the LDP in 1993, paving the way for its temporary fall from power — is not expected to emerge anytime soon.

So what’s going to happen? Will Japan remain stable and is the LDP going to reign forever? I don’t think so, because the stability of the current administration comes from an exceptional combination of specific conditions. The source of Abe’s prolonged influence and power lies in a kind of virtuous strategic cycle.

First, his administration sets the right agenda every time there is a general election. Not many Japanese define themselves as a supporter of a certain political party. Public opinion is not structured based on ideologies or cleavages such as class, race, gender or other social norms. Thus, in order to attract moderates, one must make sure that the agenda is appropriate. For the past few years, the opposition has focused on putting political scandals and bureaucratic misconduct at the forefront, but the most important issues for voters, by and large, remain the basic principles of economic and security policies. As long as those principles are deemed sound, most moderate constituencies have been content to vote for the LDP.

Second, the Abe administration has carefully refrained from damaging its political base through radical reforms. This approach is very different from the maverick style of Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s political mentor. The economic reforms talked about in the Abe administration have not made real headway.

Third, the administration uses bureaucrats wisely and has pushed forward with incremental achievement in various policy areas. This is possible because control over top bureaucrats has been severely tightened through the human resources bureau in the Cabinet. The possibility of a power struggle within the LDP is kept relatively small as Abe doesn’t put the support of major factions at risk by pursuing radical reforms. Nor does he leave room for bureaucratic rebellion, which likewise would invite a power struggle inside the LDP as well as sabotage by its ally Komeito.

Fourth comes the prime minister’s leadership. The administration has made achievements mainly in the areas where Abe has wide discretion. Monetary policy is the only element of Abenomics that has been successful, and foreign policy is the main field where the prime minister has won domestic and international praise. There tends to be much less scrutiny in these areas both from within the LDP and the Diet.

Fifth, the administration manages its public image carefully, and has called snap general elections in a short cycle — when it’s ready and has revamped its political capital. Having the ability to set the agenda and the skill to time the elections to the administration’s advantage have been the key to its success.

Those five steps form the virtuous cycle that has powered the Abe administration for so long. This cycle could be damaged if the administration were to no longer benefit from its foreign policy or monetary policy, or if the administration misjudges the timing of an election.

Abe’s strong personal rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump may also be one aspect of his virtuous cycle, but that could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the strong ties with the United States can be used as leverage to push through with a difficult political agenda. For a country like Japan, which favors consensus over individual leadership, external pressure is always key to initiating reform.

On the other hand, no one can control Trump, who, prior to his June visit to Japan for the Group of 20 summit, publicly expressed his frustration with what he views as unfairness in the U.S. alliance with Japan. According to Trump, Japan is a “free rider.” Although very crude, there is some truth to this statement. The fact that Japan continues to rely heavily on the U.S. for defense leaves it vulnerable in trade negotiations. The strong U.S.-Japan relationship played up by the administration could actually backfire.

The more fundamental risk is that Japan will naturally be affected by U.S. policy toward China. Some Japanese suspect that there is a cultural bias among the U.S. policymakers who take a hard-line position against China, because they remember the emotional U.S. reaction to Japan’s economic growth and trade disputes in the past. Current U.S. policy hurts China’s growth, but the pressure is not enough to enforce structural reform there.

The wounded dragon can be tough and vicious. Indeed, it can be very dangerous. In other words, the U.S. is giving China a reason to hate the West and strike back. Today’s People’s Liberation Army is remarkably expanded in its capability and mission, all because they deeply regret the shame of the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-1990s. In the near future, China, regretful of its dependency on the U.S. economy, will seek to build up its own economic bloc across Eurasia. The U.S. is pushing back with measures such as the Huawei ban, but only a handful of countries are following along. In reality, the U.S. economic influence in Asia is overestimated. In the long run, many Southeast Asian countries will lean more and more toward China.

Japan has no choice for now but to support the U.S. Some security experts even welcome the U.S. pressure on China. However, the economic sector senses the risk in Japan being too dependent on the U.S., and public opinion is starting to recognize it as well. The vulnerability vis-a-vis the U.S. will not be tolerated forever, and the government will have to decide whether to beef up Japan’s own defense capabilities so that it can be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the U.S. in the security alliance. After the election, the administration must tackle these issues, before it’s too late.

Lully Miura is a political scientist and the president of Yamaneko Research Institute. She teaches at Aoyama Gakuin University and was a member of an advisory panel to the prime minister on the National Defense Program Guidelines.