Here’s my weekend memo on Aso channeling the Nazis, edited to avoid any duplication with other stuff out there. Someone whose judgment I respect suggests that I’m being a little too harsh on Aso. I suspect he’s right, and I don’t think that Aso can bring the Aso administration down all by himself. Nevertheless, he is revealing the significant potential as a target for the opposition that I mentioned at the beginning of the Abe administration, a target that can be very useful when the Abe administration is more vulnerable.
Last week, the media swarmed all over Aso regarding an occasion where he allegedly suggested that Japan should learn from the Nazis in how they quietly (stealthily?) changed the German constitution. There’s a case to be made that Aso was mistreated. After all, he first mentioned the rise of the Nazis under the Weimar Constitution in what appears to be a warning that even a perfectly respectable constitution could lead to a disastrous political outcome. However, he later indeed talked about the Nazi experience as something to possibly learn from. True, most likely from a purely tactical point of view, but he broke an unwritten rule of the West: Never say anything remotely positive about the Nazis. Ever. That said, it’ll blow over.
First, the international impact. China and South Korea are jumping on Aso (and the Abe administration by implication), and the story certainly ties into the tide of ill will that has been developing and will impede nascent efforts on all sides to contain the negativity and hopefully improve the situation. That said, the impact of Aso’s latest gaffe will be limited by the fact that Nazism is not a significant element in the history issues that plague Japan’s relationship with its neighbors. It does not resonate in the way that disputing the testimonies of comfort women does for South Korea and the Nanjing Massacre for China. (But hey, if you’ve been telling your clients or bosses that Prime Minister Abe will go to Yasukuni on August 15, this is a useful excuse to stop tooting that horn.) It does resonate, though, in Europe and the United States, which is where the bulk of the public communications damage is being done. Even there, it will not do lasting structural damage to Japan’s all-important relationship with the United States (or the less important one with Europe), but it does make every desirably outcome that much harder to achieve.
Second, the domestic. The Abe administration is on a roll; it is strong enough to weather opposition attacks and media ridicule—which is the problem. Aso has stepped in it before, on issues from women, to the elderly, to nationalism and just about everything else(or so it seems)...and so at this point, the press are just waiting for him to produce provide the next headline, making him a perfect target for opposition attacks that could, cumulatively, weaken the Abe administration with a decidedly negative impact on governance during the three-year, election pressure-free (theoretically) window that Abe has to create a legacy as a transformative prime minister. And much of the media will be happy to build on any negative narratives emerging after the honeymoon with the Abe administration.
Clearly, the best outcome for the Abe administration is to have Aso do the honorable thing and fall on his sword. The problem is, Aso appears to be temperamentally disinclined to take a hint. When he became prime minister in 2008, he refused to honor his predecessor Yasuo Fukuda’s wishes and call a snap election while the electoral honeymoon lasted and instead made a year-long effort to create a legacy for himself. (And we know how that story turned out.)
So that’s the problem that Abe has as prime minister. He has a finance minister who has jurisdiction over the fiscal elements of Abenomics, a finance minister who, he knows with a high degree of certainty, will serve as a high-yield point of attack for the opposition. It’s the best gives hope (other than a significant economic downturn) for to the divided and demoralized opposition and potentially the worst as a potential political nightmare for an administration that wants to use the rare three-year window between national elections for extensive structural reform.