Global Insight

July 21, 2013 12:26 pm

How will Abe spend his political capital?

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Ideological roots make some nervous that a strong mandate will lead to a nationalist agenda

In Hagi, a white-walled medieval castle town in Japan’s western prefecture of Yamaguchi, stands a little bronze statue. It depicts Motonari Mori, a feudal lord, telling his three sons the parable of the three arrows. In a story designed to teach his offspring that sticking together was better than feuding, he explained that, while a single arrow was easy to snap, three arrows together could not be easily bent.

It is a piece of homespun wisdom borrowed by Shinzo Abe to describe Abenomics, the triple shafts of monetary, fiscal and supply-side policy that are meant to revitalise the Japanese economy. That is not all the prime minister has drawn from Yamugichi prefecture. Much of his political inspiration can be traced back to the mix of deep conservatism and reformist zeal of the 1860s when Yamaguchi joined three other rebellious fiefdoms to launch the Meiji Restoration that set Japan on the path to modernisation.

Those events may seem a world away from Sunday’s election in which the public (those that bothered to vote) appeared to be poised to endorse Mr Abe’s first seven months in office by giving his Liberal Democratic party an upper house majority. This will give the prime minister, whose party already controls the lower house, a much freer hand in pursing legislation. That begs the question of what drives Mr Abe, whose first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007 was cut disastrously short by his own ineptitude and chronic bowel disease.

Much of his motivation comes directly from his political base of Yamaguchi, known as Choshu in the 19th century. It was in Choshu where the concept of national interest was born. In Meiji times that meant learning the technological and organisational skills of the west in order to repel western colonialism. It was in Choshu too where Shinsaku Takasugi – from whom the “Shin” of Mr Abe’s first name comes – championed a professional army by jettisoning the idea that only samurai could bear arms.

Yet it is the legacy of Nobusuke Kishi, Mr Abe’s grandfather and another native of Yamaguchi, that has had the strongest influence. Kishi, a member of the wartime cabinet, was originally branded a Class-A war criminal, but he nevertheless went on to become prime minister. For Mr Abe, his grandfather is a symbol of the humiliation of defeat and of the postwar order – “victors’ justice” in the terminology of the right – imposed on Japan by the US. That is why he wants to rewrite Japan’s constitution, written during the occupation, including its provisions banning Japan from having an army and reducing the emperor to an impotent symbol.

“They have a victim mentality,” says Kiichi Fujiwara, professor of international politics at Tokyo University, of Mr Abe’s associates who believe Japan has been singled out for vilification. “They think: ‘These guys keep on telling lies about Japan and we look bad because of those lies.’”

Mr Abe’s ideological roots have made some nervous that, with a stronger mandate, he will press ahead more forcefully with a nationalist agenda. Some fear he will go to Yasukuni shrine, a nationalist symbol hated by China and South Korea, or that he will tinker with the wording of Japan’s postwar apologies. Given the potency of history and ongoing territorial disputes, any such moves would be bound to stir already churning regional tensions.

Mr Fujiwara says advisers will warn the prime minister against such incendiary actions. Although Mr Abe has said he regrets not going to Yasukuni during his first term, back then he actually took concrete steps to improve relations with China.

“Regardless of his ideological orientations – which are not a state secret – he is also a realist,” says Yoichi Funabashi, a prominent journalist and chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation. Mr Funabashi says that market jitters in May, when bond yields oscillated wildly and stock prices sank 20 per cent, may prove a blessing. Advisors have been “able to tell him that Abenomics is still shaky and that he should concentrate on the economy.”

Indeed, many expect Mr Abe to invest his political capital – while it lasts – not into constitutional dabbling, but rather into fulfilling his economic pledges. That would see a drive to lower corporate taxes, membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (against the opposition of farmers and doctors) and raise consumption tax. Mr Abe has also promised to extricate the economy from deflation.

Opinion polls suggest that the public yearns for a stable government, but mostly shuns Mr Abe’s revisionist tendencies. Many will therefore be hoping that another element of his Yamaguchi legacy – its strong tradition of pragmatism – is able to win out over ideology.

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Letter in response to this article:

The Stonewall Jackson of Japan/ From Mr Peter McLoughlin

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