Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Week-old Building Blocks for an Abe Profile

A week ago, I whacked out answers to four questions put to me and likely a few other talking heads by a journalist writing an Abe profile. For what it’s worth, here’s the Q&A. (I don’t know the name or date of the publication—it could one of a handful, from what I know of him—but a week should be more than enough for putting a hold on any lines that he might be using. If he used it just for background, that’s okay. I’m usually cooperative with journalists, academics and students who inquire by email or phone. I also extend professional courtesy to analysts.)

1.      Are there any episodes from PM Abe's childhood, university years, his relationships with his father or grandfather, or events in postwar Japan that you would say have influenced his world view?

Abe provides little information about the events that formed his world view and how they affected him. It is as if he sprang from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s forehead a full-blown conservative. Kishi’s influence as a patriarchal figure is obvious; Abe constantly refers to him constantly with reverence while he rarely mentions his low-key, easy-going father in public. I believe that there is much more to this than a media-created illusion. If my memory serves me correctly, the sole mention of family in his book “Ustsukushii Kuni e (Toward a Beautiful Country)” is an episode from his kindergarten days when he was whisked into the prime minister’s residence during the demonstrations against the Japan-US security treaty.** The next time we see Abe the person in his book is in high school, where he claims to have refuted the anti-treaty views of his social studies teacher, an episode that is telling, I believe, of the visceral strength of his convictions and their relative lack of intellectual depth.***

* I had a close-up view of the father and his entourage in Brasilia, which he visited as foreign minister.
** The child Abe innocently recites an anti-treaty chant “Anpo hantai (Treaty no)”, whereupon he is gently chided by his grandfather, who tells him to say “Anpo sansei (Treaty yes).”
*** According to his rendition, the teacher took the position that the treaty, up for revision after ten years, should be rejected, but made a face and changed the subject when Abe reminded him that the treaty also mentioned “economic cooperation” between the two nations. This is remarkable in that Abe believes even to this day, let alone then as a callow high school student, that the force of this question was enough to take down his social studies teacher.

2.      The commonly held view of Abe is that he is a nationalist ideologue. I've always thought this was a little simplistic. What do you think are the ideological ties that bind his thoughts together? Is it, as some say, a desire to break with the "masochism" of the postwar years and turn Japan into a "normal" nation; is it to appease the people to whom he feels he owes something politically - conservatives in the LDP, the Japan War Bereaved Families Association? Is there more to it than that?

Let’s see what Abe’s doing on the security front. He is clearly in favor of a strong Japan-US alliance. He is pushing for Japan to play a more prominent role in UN peacekeeping operations. He is reaching out to a wide range of states (Russia, India, France…) to enhance bilateral security relationships while keeping his hand extended to China and South Korea with “no preconditions”. Abe is not seeking nuclear weapons (unlike, say, Shintaro Ishihara, who, like many “nationalists”, made common cause with the left in opposing the 1960 security treaty), ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, and other trappings of a normal (super-)state. A 2% annual increase (real terms) in the defense budget for the next five years after decades of rising costs have eaten into the weapons acquisition budget? And what part of his constitutional and sub-constitutional agenda (SDF as a “military”, collective defense, arms exports) would look out of place in any country outside of Costa Rica? It is a measure of how abnormal “normal” was in the post-WW II regime that a search for specific motives must be sought.

As I implied in my response to Q1, I find it difficult to pinpoint how he arrived at his views. However, remember that his worldview appears to be shared to varying degrees by many, perhaps a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on where you are coming from) majority of LDP politicians and a good number of opposition Diet members. And they did not have the benefit of having a politically towering grandfather to look to for guidance on such matters. So where are they coming from?

I don’t have a full-fledged answer, but I wish to make the following point: We Japanese, looking back on modern history in East Asia, regard the coming of the Black Ships as the starting point. The Chinese, by contrast, see events through the prism of the Opium War. The Americans? That part of their history began with a bang, at Pearl Harbor. I intuit that this is a highly useful perspective from which to view current events and how they are interpreted. One of these days, I’m going to devote much of my time to elaborate on this point. But not now. There are only 24 hours in a day, and I have work to do.

3.      To what extent do you think he will he allow political realities to temper his policy goals on, for example, constitutional reform, patriotic education, nuclear power, a bigger role for the SDF? Is he pragmatist at heart?

He already has accommodated political realities, hasn’t he? For instance, he has held back on collective defense in order to secure more time to swing Komeito around to the LDP consensus. And there is no way that he will move forward with a Diet vote and a national referendum on a constitutional amendment—something that has been on the LDP agenda for ages, by the way—without support, or at least acquiescence, from Komeito. The injection of more patriotism into public education is a more achievable goal in my view, but do not expect to see any jingoism in what eventually emerges. Nuclear power is an issue that is obviously subordinated to reality. A large number of nuclear power plants in perfectly good working condition will never be re-commissioned under the new regulatory rules and procedures. Orders for new nuclear power plants will only come if and when local communities consent (a prospect which will become more likely as old nuclear power plants are decommissioned, but not one to put your money on). These are realities that Abe and every other Japanese in favor of at least some nuclear power face and accept. The expansion of the UN PKO role of the SDF has been carefully managed for at least the last couple of decades; I see no changes to this under the second Abe administration.
So I guess my question is, is the question “Is he pragmatist at heart” operative?

4.      Finally, how would you rate his first year in office in terms of the economy, structural reforms and foreign-defence policy? Do you think he will stick around for the duration (unlike in 2006-7)?

I am not an economist so I try to leave my personal sentiments aside when it comes to evaluating economic outcomes and making economic predictions. I will say the following, though:

As far as the first arrow is concerned, he placed a bet on sustained quantitative easing, added a few words about its effect on exchange rates that he almost immediately replaced with a wink-wink, and scored some immediate economic gains that have maintained his cabinet’s popularity at remarkably high levels over year after his return to power.

The report card on his second, fiscal arrow remains inconclusive. He will use a supplemental budget to ease the negative macro-impact of the consumption tax hike, a measure that a majority of analysts appear to support, if with some misgivings. But he has yet to show how he intends to achieve primary balance, a goal that he has inherited from previous administrations. (There are economists who argue against its necessity, a discussion that I leave to others to hash out.)

His actions on the third arrow so far has disappointed most people, including me. They come across as incremental rather than revolutionary, intended to minimize opposition rather than to maximize support. I see his personal imprint on the efforts to enhance prospects for women in the workplace, but labor reform more broadly, coupled with significant changes in the composition of the social safety net, is gaining little traction. Agricultural reform likewise looks to be more cosmetic than game-changing. These are the two most prominent examples, but the status quo in healthcare and childcare also calls for changes that will not come easily. And I am personally skeptical about the usefulness of special economic zones in heralding change, though I will be more than happy to be proven wrong, which the Abe administration can do in the coming months as it rolls out the next installment of third-arrow policy initiatives.

Defense/foreign policy? I give him very high marks, domestically on the Okinawa base issues, and internationally on enhancement of bilateral relationships (see Okinawa base issues, plus outreach to allies and non-allies) as well as continuation of the gradual upgrading of Japan’s role in UN operations—up to but certainly not including his Yasukuni visit, which was an unmitigated disaster for his international agenda. I believe that his accompanying statement was largely sincere (I do believe that he would have preferred a more explicitly “revisionist” statement, but still) and designed to minimize the fallout, but he appears to have underestimated the negative fallout in the United States. The practical, on-the-ground effects are unclear to me and perhaps rather minimal, but Japan clearly slipped in the propaganda war with China (and South Korea), while putting a damper on working-level efforts to improve the bilateral relationship with South Korea (and China). That can’t be good at all.

His chances of sticking around for the next two-and-a-half years until the next most-likely double general election are excellent. Barring an act of God or a horrible domestic economy in which his administration is seen to be badly bungling the response to severe international adversities, no challenger will emerge that could unseat him in the 2015, when his current three-year term as the LDP president ends. As for 2016, the elements of regime change are a bad economy, a largely united opposition, and Komeito defection.  The first could be enough to unseat Abe. The first two could be enough to dislodge the LDP as well. The three combined will ensure defeat for Abe and the LDP. The first is possible, the second is unlikely, and the third is, if Abe does not completely alienate Komeito and its Sokagakkai support base, improbable.

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