Commentary / Japan

Abe's chase for glory at the 2020 Olympics

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

This week marks the one-year point before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Hosting such an event is historic for any nation, and in Japan’s case, the country has not held the summer games for over half a century. The whole country is now gearing up for this event, but few leaders have demonstrated the individual commitment to seeing it through to completion more than the prime minister himself, Shinzo Abe.

For Abe, the Olympics represents the culmination of his historic run as the leader of Japan. More than simply holding the position of prime minister during Japan’s selection and preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, he has demonstrated a deep personal commitment at every stage of the process. It is only natural that he now intends to hold firm his grasp on the prime ministership until the Olympics are over.

For observers of Japanese politics, this means two things: First, we should expect to see Abe steer away from controversy in an effort to maintain stability until the end of August next year. Second, following the end of the Olympics, we are likely to observe renewed vigor from Abe in aggressively pursuing his remaining policy agenda items — even some that may seem controversial at the moment.

For any scholar or practitioner who has studied Abe, it is clear that legacy matters to him. His family stretches back generations in its ties to Japan’s political institutions, most evident in the postwar era. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister from 1957 to 1960, his great uncle Eisaku Sato was Japan’s longest continuously serving prime minister, holding office from 1964 to 1972, and his father Shintaro Abe was a long-time Diet member who was on track to become prime minister if not for scandals and an untimely fatal illness.

Abe’s first foray as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 was a doomed endeavor, fraught with scandal, a failed policy agenda and a weak exit pinned to health issues. This time around, Abe has made a conscious effort to ensure that his current run avoids the same storyline.

Abe has also pursued legacy agenda items, dedicating much capital toward those ends. Such items include resolution of the Northern Territories and abduction issues, and achieving the first-ever amendment of the 1947 Constitution. But there are lesser achievements that have been on the agenda as well.

Abe has set milestones that separate him from past prime ministers. In 2015, he became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Abe also broke the record for most countries visited by Japan’s head of government, and he did it in half the time that it took Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to set the previous total. The milestones themselves have not been the ends for Abe, but he is conscious of the achievements of prime ministers before him and has sought to do more in his capacity as leader of Japan.

One legacy agenda item that does not earn much mention as something personal to Abe is shepherding Japan’s hosting of the Olympics. Although Abe has remained largely outside the routine affairs associated with the herculean effort, he has demonstrated his commitment to its success at every major milestone associated with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Abe was present in Buenos Aires in September 2013 when the International Olympic Committee was set to decide the location for the 2020 version. The decision was down to either Istanbul or Tokyo, and Abe made one final plea to the IOC on behalf of his country. One of the iconic photos of Japan’s journey to hosting the 2020 Olympics was Abe cheering with the Japanese delegation upon learning that Tokyo won the bid.

Abe also made an iconic entrance at the Rio Olympics in 2016. At the closing ceremony of the games, he emerged dressed as a pseudo-Super Mario to take the mantle of Olympic host from Brazil.

Now, one year out, it would represent a major blow to Abe’s legacy if he tripped at the finish line and experienced an early exit from the prime ministership before he is able to preside over the Olympics.

On paper, Abe’s position as prime minister is safe until October 2021 when the current term for the Lower House ends, but in practice he must manage both public opinion and intra-party rivalry within his Liberal Democratic Party to maintain his seat of power. Major scandals, controversial legislation or anything else that could cause a major drop in public opinion could empower LDP rivals to challenge Abe’s position atop the party. Abe needs no reminder how quickly the tide can turn. He started his prime ministership in October 2006 with 65 percent public approval and was compelled to exit less than a year later after dipping into the 20th percentile (with a nearly 60 percent disapproval rating).

Thus, Abe is likely to play it safe for the next year. As he promised in the Upper House election campaign, he is focused on stability. Fortunately for Abe, he does not have any major elections on the books until 2021. This does not mean he will shy away from difficult situations or avoid pushing the envelope on existing policies. It just means that observers can expect Abe’s behavior to be consistent with what we have seen since his recovery from the Moritomo and Kake Gakuen scandals in 2017.

He will likely avoid introducing controversial legislation to the Diet, he will not make policy decisions that could severely erode public trust and he will focus his efforts on policies that keep him in the public’s good graces. This contrasts with the Abe we saw from 2013 to 2015, who sought to introduce epoch-making changes in security practice and Kantei-led diplomacy.

The rumor mill is already swirling about a fourth term for Abe as LDP president (which would presumably enable him to serve as prime minister until 2024), but following the completion of the Olympics, the yoke of that legacy agenda item will be off of Abe’s shoulders. By then, he will have already earned the title of longest continuously serving postwar prime minister, and he will have a Lower House election looming. With longevity already achieved, Abe could employ any excess political capital that comes with a successful Olympic Games to securing his personal agenda items. This is where a more aggressive Abe is likely to return to the fore.

Depending on how the Olympics fare, Abe could call a snap election sometime between August and October 2020 to capitalize on the success of the moment and renew his mandate with the public. Whether Abe pursues that option, he will be free of self-imposed restraints in pursuing his personal agenda items with vigor, controversial or not. This is where he may extend further toward a “two island” solution with Russia, or where he makes his push for constitutional amendment despite the absence of a pro-revision two-thirds majority in the Upper House.

Right now, athletes from around the world are preparing to chase glory at the 2020 Olympics. A certain world leader happens to be among them, doing what it takes to ensure he is on the stage for the historic event just under a year from now. Unlike those athletes, however, the end of the Olympics are when the games will really begin for Abe, who will have little else to lose.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.