The Second Abe Administration: Analyzing the New Political Landscape

Abe’s Agenda on Three Fronts


In order to deal with the difficult issues Japan faces domestically and internationally, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō will need to display leadership and promote realistic policies without getting tied up in ideology.

Issues for Abe’s Second Administration

The Liberal Democratic Party scored a major victory in the December 16 House of Representatives election. Ten days later LDP President Abe Shinzō became prime minister for the second time, ending three years and three months of rule by the Democratic Party of Japan. But as many commentators have noted, the LDP’s share of the vote in the proportional-representation constituencies was almost the same as in the 2007 election for the House of Councillors, when it was routed by the DPJ. The big difference this time was the sharp decline in support for the DPJ and the rise of newer parties, notably the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party.

Though the LDP won a comfortable majority in the lower house, this does not mean that the Japanese public has placed its trust in Prime Minister Abe’s character, supports his right-leaning ideology, or is confident in the competence of the LDP. And the issues that the new Abe administration confronts are daunting and will not be easy to resolve. But the Abe cabinet’s approval rating is above 60%.(*1) Japan has changed prime ministers six times in the six past years, making effective political leadership impossible. People realize that this has been a bad thing for the country and would now sincerely like to see the new administration remain in power for a reasonably long time.

The Abe administration also bears a heavy burden of responsibility. If it fails to deal appropriately with the issues Japan faces, the country’s power will decline further, and its politics may become totally bogged down. With this in mind, here I would like to consider the issues the new team must confront on three fronts, namely, the economy, international affairs, and domestic politics.

The Economy: Waiting to See Abe’s Growth Strategy

On the economic front, the most serious issue is the big deficits that the government has been running, with tax revenues supplying less than half of the needed funds, and the resulting ballooning of the national debt, which is now roughly equivalent to 200% of gross domestic product. In order to reduce this fiscal red ink, the government needs to succeed at a number of difficult tasks, including promoting economic growth to increase tax revenues, implementing hikes in the consumption tax and other levies, restraining spending on social security, and streamlining the government itself.

The Abe administration is seeking first of all to overcome deflation and reenergize the economy. In order to achieve this, it proposes to implement a three-pronged set of policies: bold monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and growth strategy. Previously Abe was known for his strong opinions on foreign policy and security issues, but since winning the LDP presidency last September he has been focusing mainly on this economic agenda.

The administration has called for a 2% inflation target and is seeking closer cooperation between the government and the Bank of Japan. This message alone has made the yen depreciate considerably, a development that exporters have welcomed. A major supplementary budget is also being put together, which the government hopes will serve as a bridge to the budget for the coming fiscal year. Implementing this sort of fiscal stimulus is a trademark policy of the LDP. The business community has welcomed this prospect, along with the yen’s fall, and stock prices have scored substantial gains.

Though the government has yet to implement this stimulus, the economy moves up on hopes and expectations, and the administration has achieved considerable success in that respect. But the plans for additional spending are largely in the area of strengthening the national infrastructure, little different from the public works appropriations of previous LDP administrations, and there is much skepticism on that score, including suspicion that many of the outlays will turn out to be wasteful, as was the case in the past.

The third element of the new administration’s economic policy is growth strategy, but we have not yet seen the details. Previously the LDP was unable to undertake bold deregulation because it relied on support from established interests. Will the outcome be different this time? And will the party be able to overcome its reluctance to have Japan participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations? Also, reactivating idled nuclear power plants may be part of Abe administration’s agenda for promoting growth, but accomplishing this will be no easy task.

Even if “Abenomics,” as this set of policies has been dubbed, proves successful, that alone will not solve the government’s fiscal woes. It will probably be necessary to implement further hikes in the consumption tax and other levies, to rein in social security spending, and to streamline the administrative apparatus.

Will the Abe administration be able to restrain the growth of public pension outlays and other forms of social welfare spending with moves to raise the starting age for benefits and reducing payments to retirees and others? This may be difficult, since the LDP relies heavily on support from senior citizens. During the recent election campaign, the Liberal Democrats proclaimed that their party had transformed itself during its three years out of power. To show that the LDP has truly changed, it needs to cut back on traditional public works, undertake bold deregulation, work more closely with other countries, tackle the unpopular task of raising taxes, and trim social welfare. Accomplishing this agenda will require do-or-die efforts.

Dynamic Deterrence: An Inappropriate Target for Review

On the international front, including foreign policy and security, the biggest issue for the Abe administration is how to deal with China’s rise.

Prime Minister Abe’s basic policy is to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and its relations with the United States. He intends to review the current National Defense Program Guidelines, which were adopted under the DPJ in 2010, to increase the defense budget, and to revise the government’s official interpretation of the Constitution to allow the exercise of collective self-defense. He is also considering the establishment of a National Security Council to draft comprehensive, long-term policies and strategies, and as longer-range goals, he is looking at the ideas of amending the Constitution and changing the name of the Self-Defense Forces to explicitly identify them as Japan’s military.

In connection with the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines, Abe’s minister of defense, Onodera Itsunori, has announced the administration’s intention of revising items including the planned personnel cuts in the Ground Self-Defense Force and the concept of “dynamic defense” and of increasing appropriations for defense. But Japan is not in a position to hike defense spending substantially. The government should go ahead with the planned cuts in the Ground SDF and address the pressing task of building up capabilities in the southwest, which has become more important in defense terms, and improving the equipment of the Maritime SDF and Air SDF. In this respect the replacement of the earlier “basic defense force” concept with the “dynamic defense” concept under the DPJ-approved 2010 guidelines was appropriate. The idea of revising it seems to be no more than the expression of anti-DPJ sentiment and the unquestioning acceptance by the current LDP administration of the assertions advanced by the Ground SDF. Even the Yomiuri Shimbun, a generally Abe-friendly paper, came out against revising this concept in a January 11 editorial.

Establishing a National Security Council, Approving Collective Self-Defense

The second set of items on Abe’s foreign policy and security agenda is to establish a National Security Council and allow the exercise of collective self-defense. During the first Abe administration (2006–7), the government prepared a bill to establish an NSC, but Abe resigned before it was enacted, and his successor, Fukuda Yasuo, nixed the proposal. But even the DPJ is basically in favor of this move. It is something that should definitely be done in order to overcome the sectionalism that is endemic to Japan and come up with comprehensive, long-range security policies. The DPJ is basically in favor of the move, and the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party also support it, so I hope the current administration will be quick to implement it. For this purpose as well, it would be better to avoid getting embroiled in an unproductive fight with other parties over revision of the 2010 defense guidelines.

As for collective self-defense, during the first Abe administration a panel was formed to study the issue, and it submitted a report to Prime Minister Fukuda in 2008, but the Fukuda administration ended up shelving the matter.

The report from the panel, which was headed by Yanai Shunji, a former ambassador to the United States, was substantive. It noted in particular that without the exercise of collective self-defense it would be impossible to act appropriately in protecting US naval vessels or defending against missiles. These issues have taken on greater immediacy now that there is a possibility of joint Japan-US action around the Senkaku Islands and that North Korea is able to shoot a missile as far as the waters off the Philippines. The public would probably support a shift of the government’s position.

It is possible that some political parties and media organs, accustomed to decades of pacifism, would strongly resist approval of collective self-defense. Also, since Japanese law is based on the principle of enumerated powers, meaning that the government cannot do anything that is not explicitly authorized by legislation, even if the government were to change its position and decide that the exercise of collective self-defense is not forbidden by the Constitution, it would still need to substantially revise the Self-Defense Forces Act to make such action possible. This could well be difficult to accomplish, since the New Kōmeitō, the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition, is leery of making this change.

From a global perspective, however, this revision is only natural. China and South Korea are both able to participate in collective self-defense. There is no need for Japan to hesitate about conforming to the global standard on this matter. The government should take the necessary steps to accomplish this.

Revision of the Self-Defense Forces Act

Another item on Abe’s agenda is amendment of the Constitution, notably the war-renouncing provisions of Article 9. The first paragraph of Article 9 merely states the aim of settling disputes peacefully, which is an aspiration shared around the world. There is no need to revise this, and few people are calling for its revision. Paragraph 2 states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” but Japan already has the SDF, and in that sense the provision has effectively been amended. Many members of the LDP consider this inadequate, however, and want the provision to be properly revised. Under the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the existence of a national military would be recognized, and the existing Self-Defense Forces (“Jiētai”) would be renamed “National Defense Force” (“Kokubōgun”). The new Japanese name would incorporate the word gun, meaning “military.” But the English name would be almost the same as it is now, and I do not see this renaming as having much significance. It should be possible to deal with the matter adequately by revising the SDF Act.

Aside from addressing the above issues relating to defense policy, Japan needs to ensure stability in its relations with China and South Korea. The Abe administration needs to act carefully in its handling of the confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands and the differences with South Korea over Takeshima (a Japanese-claimed island occupied by the Koreans, who call it Dokdo) and the “comfort women” who served the Japanese military during the war.

Joint Studies on History to Promote Dialogue with China and South Korea

Regarding the Senkakus, some have suggested reinforcing Japanese control stationing government personnel or constructing facilities on the currently uninhabited islands, but Prime Minister Abe seems to have decided not to take such action right away, holding on to these possibilities as bargaining chips to use with China.

Before becoming prime minister, Abe spoke of reviewing two past statements with relevance to Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, namely, the apology issued by Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995 and the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei apologizing to the comfort women. But particularly if the government goes back on the latter, trouble with South Korea will intensify, and Japan will get no support from the United States. Many members of the LDP view the Kōno statement as procedurally flawed and not adequately supported by evidence. Those calling for its review are especially numerous among the members of Abe’s coterie. One possibility might be to undertake academic research concerning this matter on a joint international basis. But it is not something that should be pursued under high-level leadership.

University of Tokyo Professor Fujiwara Kiichi, a prominent left-leaning pundit, has written that he can understand the idea of revising security policy and that it might be acceptable even to amend paragraph 2 of Article 9, but that moves to reinterpret Japan’s history must be avoided (Asahi Shimbun, December 26, 2012). I find it interesting that his views coincide with those of many middle-of-the-road commentators, including myself.

What I think Japan really needs to do for the sake of stable relations with China and South Korea is to engage in dialogue about history. The first Abe administration launched a Japan-China Joint History Research Committee (for which I served as the Japanese chair), and it also started a second round of joint research on history with South Korea. I hope the new Abe administration will once again undertake such initiatives.

In the Japan-China joint research project that I was involved in, we sought to produce “parallel histories” presenting the positions of both countries side by side. I would like to see this taken a step further with the drafting of short readers for children presenting concise versions of the two countries’ positions. As it stands, people in China and South Korea are completely unaware of Japan’s positions, and the Chinese and South Korean positions are not that well known in Japan. If, for example, we could inform the Korean people of the reasons Japan considers Takeshima to be Japanese territory, we could at least advance to the stage of “agreeing to disagree.” That should be our objective.

Aiming to Amend the Constitution

Let us now consider the issues on the third front, domestic politics. The biggest issue on the political agenda for Abe and his team is to win a majority in the House of Councillors this summer. At present the ruling coalition is in the minority in the upper house; victory in the upcoming election would make it much easier for the administration to get its bills enacted. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses; the ruling coalition already has such a majority in the lower house, and if it can win one in the upper house as well, the administration might push ahead with the amendment process. Another possibility is that the new Japan Restoration Party (which also favors amending the Constitution) will score a major advance in the upper house election, opening the prospect for the administration to reach the two-thirds target with its help.

Prime Minister Abe’s top priority with respect to amendment of the Constitution seems to be revision of the provisions concerning the amendment process itself. Under the current Article 96, an amendment must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Diet and ratified by a majority in a national referendum. Abe wants the former requirement to be changed to simple majorities in the two houses.

This change would be meaningful, and it is not at all inconsistent with international norms. But a move to make the amendment process easier would surely be seen by some as a first step toward revision of the pacifist provisions of Article 9, and so it could run into strong opposition. If the Abe administration decides to push first for revision of Article 96, it should clarify its intentions with regard to Article 9. Even if it does so, however, it may encounter public resistance.

Strengthening the Primacy of the House of Representatives

What I would suggest is that the administration focus not on relaxing the requirements of Article 96 concerning amendments but rather on strengthening the primacy of the House of Representatives within the Diet. In a parliamentary democracy it is normal for the decisions of the lower house to take precedence over those of the upper house. Under Article 59, paragraph 2, of the current Constitution, the lower house can enact legislation that the upper house has rejected or failed to act on by passing it a second time, but it needs to do so by a two-thirds majority. This is a high hurdle. My suggestion would be to change this requirement to a simple majority. (Another idea is to abolish the upper house entirely.) Such a proposal, I believe, would not meet with that much resistance from the general public or the media. And it would make the public aware that it is possible for them to change the Constitution—something that has never been done in Japan’s history. Unfortunately this proposal is unlikely to be forthcoming either from the LDP or the opposition DPJ. The two top parties both have powerful contingents of upper house legislators among their members. Overcoming their resistance would require the exercise of strong political leadership.

Since becoming prime minister, Abe has refrained from voicing or acting on the right-wing ideological positions he had previously espoused. Many think this restraint will end if and when the LDP wins in the summer upper house election. But if the prime minister displays true leadership and makes it clear that he will continue to be guided by realism rather than ideology, his administration should be able to achieve progress in dealing with the many issues it faces. Making an ideological right turn would do no good at all.

(Originally written in Japanese on January 15, 2013. Title photo: Prime Minister Abe holding a press conference on emergency economic measures on January 11. Photo by the Sankei Shimbun.)

(*1) ^ This figure reached 71% according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey as of February 10, 2013.

Self-Defense Forces consumption tax Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party DPJ LDP National Security Council National Defense Program Guidelines deflation Senkaku Islands constitution SDF Article 9 House of Representatives House of Councillors comfort women Shinzo Abe Prime Minister Abe National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies inflation fiscal stimulus defense Itsunori Onodera Japan-China Joint History Research Committee