“That is the core message I’m here to make, and I should repeat it by saying I am back and – (laughter, applause) – and – thank you – and so shall Japan be.
“That much is what I have wanted to say. I could stop here and take your questions for the next 15 minutes. I know, however, that Ambassador Sasae has started to look very much anxious – (laughter) – so I’ll go on talking anyway. Bear with me for another 20 minutes.”
Prime Minister Abe said the right things in his February 22 CSIS talk that he gave in Washington, the Japan-US alliance, North Korea, China, etc. The “Japan is back” speech and the Q&A short enough to scan through in a few minutes and there’s English language coverage, so I won’t dwell on the contents. Two things on the periphery caught my eye, though. First, the moderator (Michael Green) looked for non-Japanese journalists—a press conference was scheduled for Japanese reporters later on—but only one of the five people who got to ask questions was a journalist (Chris Nelson, proprietor of the ubiquitous Nelson Report). Didn’t anyone else from the US media care enough to show up and lob questions at him to see if he might say something that could stir up commotion, as has been his wont from time to time? It’ll take a little more time and effort before Japan really is back in the eyes of the media, in the United States where it still counts the most for Japan. Second, Abe comes across as self-assured and composed. Both the jokes at the beginning of his speech were told at his own expense, the first a reference to his disastrous first administration, the second a sly recognition of his record of controversial statements (most recently hinting at the possibility of purchasing foreign bonds as part of his easy money policy in a Diet session). Not particularly remarkable and surely prepared beforehand, but they work, at least in transcript. Am I reading too much into one, brief session, and two jokes? Or did America see a truly new, better version of Shinzo Abe?
The real surprise (for me, at least) was that, according to media reports, Abe and President Obama came up with a joint statement in which they “交渉参加に際し、一方的に全ての関税を撤廃することをあらかじめ約束することを求められるものではないことを確認する(confirm that it will not be required in joining the negotiations to unilaterally promise beforehand to eliminate all customs duties)” and that Abe stated in a post-summit press conference that “聖域なき関税撤廃が前提でないことが明確になった(it has become clear that eliminating customs duties without sanctuary is not a premise).” It had been hard for me to believe that Abe could come back from a meeting with Obama without enough cover to come out in favor of an early commitment to the TPP negotiations, not with all the talk surrounding his Washington visit given the negotiations timeline, and still avoid serious political damage. Yet I was still surprised that he managed to come up with wording that will surely keep the LDP naysayers at bay. I think that he owes one to Obama. The Abe administration is the one who manages to keep the agriculture lobby at bay and businesses and the mainstream media happy five months before the July House of Councillors election, while the Obama administration must go to Congress, where opponents of Japan’s participation will have another set piece to offer in resistance.
Is Abe good? Lucky? I’m increasingly convinced that he’s both.