Friday, March 02, 2007

Mr. Abe Makes the Cover of Newsweek Unfortunately, the Headline is: LETDOWN

I can't believe anyone who bothers to read this blog has missed this one, but here it is anyway. Newsweek (Asia version) Mar. 5 issue has a fairly lengthy cover story about how almost nothing has gone right for Prime Minister Abe after the stunning diplomatic coup at the start of his administration. It's mostly a compendium of conventional wisdom you see in the Japanese domestic press. That's not Newsweek's fault though. The Abe administration is turning into a CW compendium.

Looking at this article and using my impeccable 20/20 hindsight, I realize now that the trip to Beijing was a snap, and Seoul could not afford to be left behind. His two other early, major political victories were also much less difficult than they seemed to be at first glance. In amending the Education Basic Law to include promoting patriotism among other things, the DPJ proposed language that was even stronger than the Komeito-moderated administration version. The DPJ also came to support the Agency-to-Ministry makeover for the self-defense bureaucracy. And I say the Beijing (and Seoul) trip was easy because the trip had been a long time in preparation. China badly wanted to make up, going so far as not to extract promise form Mr. Abe not to go to the Yasukuni Shrine, instead embarking on a coy pas de deux that enabled Mr. Abe (and of course Hu Jintao) to sidestep the question.

So, early in his tenure, Mr. Abe picked the low-hanging fruit. But now, he is saddled with the hard questions. (Isn't hindsight a wonderful skill to have?) What is he going to do with the nitty-gritty of education? The economic disparities, attributed in the political narrative to Prime Minister Koizumi's economic reform policies? The national pension and healthcare systems? How does what are you going to do with the make over help us deal with the nuclear threat?

And speaking of North Korea, Mr., Abe seems to be trapped between a rock and a hard place on the abductees issue. A core constituency of his demands a hard line on North Korea on this issue, while the US will not make this an obstacle to improvements on the nuclear issue. In purely political terms, Mr. Abe will be best served by a collapse of the Six-Party deal due to North Korean intransigence. That way, he can postpone the tough decisions.

(Shisaku reminds us by way of Shukan Shincho that patience may be wearing thin among some of the families of the abductees.)


Ken Worsley said...

So, early in his tenure, Mr. Abe picked the low-hanging fruit.

Absolutely...we brought that up then...there was the comment about how even Shimura Ken's monkey would have the sense to head over to China and the ROK, given the 'damage' Mr Koizumi had done to those relationships...

Then, the questions you get to after - man, that's the hard shit. Especially the pension. The way I see it, even a couple like us (she's Japanese, I'm American and we're going to live in Japan) won't spend any money because we know the pension system is broke. We invest elsewhere, put it away. Our money should make money, not buy useless junk, right? And I think more and more couples are thinking the same as they hit their late 20s/early 30s: This pension system is broken and these guys can't fix it. So, we can't take part in their consumption system anymore. They wrote us out of their equation and only they can write us in...I don't mean 'they' as in 'they' control both - but I would like to see Keidanren (and relevant government ministries) do something about it before that 16% of GDP being export becomes a desperate attempt at 25%.

Jun Okumura said...


The national pension system does look scary. What Mr. Abe says in his "Beautiful Country" book amounts to (in my words) "there is no problem, because the Diet will deal with it if the numbers do not add up." He also does some faulty arithmetic. Not that the DPJ is coming up with a convincing alternative to this non-choice.

Ken said...


yes, you're right about the DPJ. I railed on that a bit in an interview on Saturday, but it's not going to make the final cut (I was doing the interview, was supposed to keep my opinions out of it. ;) haha). Anyway, I find it very disappointing that they don't have a plan or position that can be used as leverage. I do think that reflects how difficult the situation really is (the current pension system presupposes constant population growth, which obviously isn't happening).

Abe's explanation is not very reassuring.

Jun Okumura said...

The DPJ says it will fill the gap for that national pension sytem by dedicating all the consumption tax revenue to this single objective, while maintaining the tax rate at 5%. Given the huge, chronic shortfall in the national budget, this doesn't make any sense unless overall expeditures are addressed. (And if they did, they wouldn't need this accounting gimmick.) But the latest DPJ policy statement (subtitled Policy Magna Carta) says next to nothing that leads to budget cuts. The DPJ statement also leaves local governments wondering what is going to happen to their 1 percentage point share (or 1/5th of the total consumption tax revenue).

The LDP can be inconsistent and head-in-the-sand as well, but the DPJ needs to create some separation. Otherwise, none-of-the-above will only continue to increase its lead in the polls.