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Before Shinzo Abe came to office, he was widely known as “The Prince”, a relative of two former prime ministers and virtually born to rise to the top of Japan’s close-knit political establishment. Indeed, he was more or less handed the job when Junichiro Koizumi stepped down, with only token opposition to stop his seemingly effortless ascent.
But since September last year when, at 52, he became the youngest prime minister in the postwar period and the only one to be born since the war’s end, he has looked anything but comfortable in the role.
Part of that is because he had to succeed Mr Koizumi, a colourful character whose casual style captivated Japan throughout his 5½ years in office. In comparison, Mr Abe has looked stiff and lacking in conviction.
Those close to him say he would have benefited from a fight for the premiership. Many of the ruling Liberal Democratic party factions take credit for propelling him to office and all are busily seeking political patronage and influence. As a result, Mr Abe has appeared far more willing than the stubborn and single-minded Mr Koizumi to listen to often competing advice.
On the economy, he has appeared disengaged, partly because he has not had to face the crisis that confronted Mr Koizumi in the gloomy days of 2001. He has pushed through some legislation dear to his heart, upgrading the defence agency to a ministry, preparing the ground for a referendum on rewriting the pacifist constitution and amending the basic law on education. These all stem from his conviction that Japan should stand taller in the world and be less ashamed of its history.
But such measures have left a large chunk of voters – who care more about the seemingly unaddressed issues of pensions, tax and healthcare – underwhelmed.
Occasionally, too, he has slipped. He fumbled over a question relating to the so-called comfort women, mainly Asian women press-ganged into prostitution during the war. His answer enraged many by appearing to quibble with an apology by a former government over the issue. When he restated the apology, he annoyed his supporters on the right, many of whom say Japan should stop staying sorry.
Even Mr Abe’s wife, Akie – whose youth and visibility are being exploited to lift her husband’s public profile – concedes that he is still finding his feet in a job that came earlier than he expected. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, she said: “He had been known as a politician who spoke his mind strongly but, since he’s become prime minister, that characteristic has been diluted.”
If Mr Abe has struggled to stamp his mark on domestic politics – something that could yet change – his diplomatic record has been far more successful. That makes him almost the opposite of Mr Koizumi who took credit for much improvement at home but whom many regarded as having been far less successful on the international stage, specifically in relation to Japan’s Asian neighbours.
This week, Mr Abe makes his first trip to Washington since coming to office. That long gap is unusual for Japanese leaders, who normally pay early obeisance to the US, Japan’s main ally and military protector since the end of the war.
The reason is that the new prime minister, with Washington’s encouragement, has made patching up relations with Asian neighbours, particularly China, a priority. “The prime minister chose first to visit China as well as South Korea,” a senior official from Japan’s foreign ministry said. “The idea as well as the outcome has been very much welcomed by the US.”
The outcome in question has been a veritable thawing in previously tense Sino-Japanese relations, which had become dominated by Mr Koizumi’s regular visits to Yasukuni shrine, a controversial war memorial that, to much of Asia, is a symbol of Japan’s militarism. This month, Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, paid a return visit to Tokyo, at which the two signed a long list of minor, but symbolic, agreements aimed at putting flesh on the bones of their new friendship.
The emphasis on improving relations with China has taken many by surprise. Mr Abe came to office with the reputation of being a hawk and a nationalist. His campaign was dominated by talk of making Japan stronger and more proud and of shoring up its defence in a dangerous world.
Many misinterpreted that rhetoric, missing the fact that there is a strong practical streak in his political make-up that puts national interest above other considerations. Mr Abe concluded that improving relations with China was to Japan’s advantage and so he took the necessary steps. So far that has required nothing more than refraining from visiting Yasukuni.
In Washington, Mr Abe will reiterate the centrality of the US alliance to Japan’s security and build on his message that Japan, 60 years after the war, is ready to play a bigger role in international affairs. With encouragement from Washington he has said he wants to re-examine Japan’s current interpretation of Japan’s constitution to allow it to stretch its wings further in matters of international security. By the end of his term in office, which theoretically could last six years, he wants to have changed the constitution altogether.
Such sentiments are welcome to George W. Bush, who is seeking to recreate with Mr Abe the famously relaxed relations he enjoyed with the Elvis-loving Mr Koizumi. The greatest concern in Washington is likely to be not how Mr Abe is conducting himself abroad. Rather, it will want to satisfy itself that the new prime minister has what it takes politically to get things done at home.