The Letdown of Abe’s Timid Policy Speech


“What is this?” I found myself muttering to myself incredulously as I listened to Prime Minister Abe Shinzō deliver his general policy speech to the National Diet on January 28. It was not so much a general policy speech as a declaration of timidity. He used the word kiki (“crisis,” “critical”) a full 14 times, which was fine, but he did not utter so much as a single syllable about the Senkaku Islands, nuclear power plants, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All the prime minister revealed in this first policy speech was pusillanimous circumspection.

In his remarks to the general meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet members held just before the Diet session, the prime minister declared, “This is an extremely important Diet. It will truly be the first step toward restoring Japan.” Hearing these words, I thought the speech would be impressive indeed, but it turned out to be a letdown. Abe ended up personifying the expression kotatsu benkei, someone who is fierce when at home but turns into a wimp when he steps outside.

Not Even a Word of Thanks to the Kōmeitō’s Yamaguchi

I have been reporting on politics for many years, but this is the first time for me to write about a prime minister’s speech in which I have more material about what was not said than about the actual content. A prime example is the issue of Japan’s relations with China, which require urgent attention. What does Abe intend to do? Just three days before the speech, Yamaguchi Natsuo, head of the New Kōmeitō (the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition), met in Beijing with China’s new leader Xi Jinping, opening a path for dialogue. Sino-Japanese relations are an issue that the government cannot sidestep. The prime minister naturally should have revealed his views on this subject. At the very least, he could have said a few words of thanks to Yamaguchi.

Meanwhile, public opinion is sharply divided on the issues of nuclear power and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The handling of nuclear power is a matter of grave importance for Japan’s future, and in the race for the LDP presidency last year, Abe declared that he was in favor of reactivating the idled nuclear plants. But as soon as he won the party presidency he went quiet on this issue. This is clearly a violation of his campaign pledge. In his policy speech, the prime minister took what might be called a course of evasion: He steered clear of controversial topics and focused on safe subjects like reviving the economy, which nobody opposes.

Playing It Safe to a Fault

Some of Abe’s fellow Liberal Democrats have called the prime minister’s speech “thoughtful.” Is that a reasonable assessment? It was a policy speech delivered shortly after Abe’s inauguration, following his party’s landslide victory in the December lower house election. So we were eagerly waiting to hear what the new leader would have to say. But he pulled a fast one on us. Apparently the prime minister and his advisers decided to put off addressing major issues this time because he will be delivering an administrative policy speech a month later. This was a bad call, because after the Diet has been deliberating for a month, it will already have dug out all the issues, and the prime minister’s address on administrative policy is bound to be a rehash of topics that will already have been raised.

The early days of the Abe administration have been colored by a number of notable misjudgments by the prime minister’s inner circle. The LDP is said to be playing it safe, but this caution seems to be not for the sake of the people but for the sake of the party’s own interests.

Hosono Gōshi, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan (the former ruling party) made a good point on a political talk show on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) before the prime minister delivered his speech: “The LDP’s [general election campaign] pledges included references to [holding an official government ceremony on] Takeshima Day and stationing government employees on the Senkakus. We weren’t able to do some of the things [we pledged] in our manifesto either. We regret that. But I can’t help thinking the LDP made its pledges without any intention of carrying them out in the first place. If that’s so, I think it’s sinful.” In other words, Hosono is asserting that the LDP committed a premeditated crime in violating its campaign pledges. When the Liberal Democrats were out of power, Abe repeatedly criticized the DPJ manifesto. Now the shoe is on the other foot.

Koizumi Shinjirō Offers an Apt Critique

The prime minister’s speech received some harsh criticism even from within the LDP. Koizumi Shinjirō, director of the party’s Youth Division, came out with a truly devastating comment: “In baseball, however much you focus on defense, you can’t win the game without scoring a run. You’ve got to take the opportunities to play the offensive game too.”

Both Prime Minister Abe and LDP Secretary General Ishiba Shigeru are apparently so concerned about the split in control of the two houses of the Diet that they intend to be ultra-cautious about everything. Their aim is to win control of the upper house in the election this summer and establish a long-term administration. But as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. One thing I can say for sure is that longevity in power is not something that can be achieved by aiming for it; it can only be achieved by squarely tackling the issues at hand. The prime minister needs to recognize that he will quickly lose his supporters if he tries to get through the Diet session just by peddling his dicey Abenomics.

(Originally written in Japanese on January 29, 2013.)

Liberal Democratic Party Abe Shinzō TPP New Kōmeitō Yamaguchi Natsuo Senkaku Islands Democratic Party of Japan Hosono Goshi