Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a business roundtable at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe speaking at the US Chamber of Commerce © AP

Last year, Shinzo Abe overtook his grandfather as the sixth-longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan. If he is still in power by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020, he will have knocked his great uncle off the number one spot. All this stability, runs the mutter in both civil service and business circles, can be awfully unsettling.

The quiet whinge is that Mr Abe’s increasingly exceptional stay in office is having a multiplier effect on the power of the office itself. After acclimatising to the latitude created by seven changes of PM since 2006, business and bureaucratic leaders have suddenly been forced to retune to the unfamiliar reality that the man in charge now will still be in charge in a year.

For companies, open reluctance to embrace the ambitions of the “Abenomics” economic revival programme carries uncomfortably high risk. For civil servants, who know precisely who will be allocating the top jobs in a year’s time, orders from the PM’s office must now be carried out with conspicuous vigour. More critically, say senior figures in both camps, it is causing historic shifts in the relationship between government and the private sector.

The grumbling is currently loudest at the nexus where those two collide — the ministry for economy, trade and industry (Meti). And this gripe has become increasingly widespread, albeit still privately and cautiously by Meti officials, since last week and Mr Abe’s apparently successful summit, dinner and 27-hole round of golf with Donald Trump.

The lead-up to the extravaganza involved Meti’s preparation of what Japanese media reported to be a $150bn “economic co-operation package”: a gift to the new US president from a PM desperate to ensure the longevity of Japan’s status as America’s best friend in Asia. Getting to that figure, according to some of those involved, required an epic whipround of corporate Japan. It was carried out with a forced grin as Meti’s bureaucrats smarted from Mr Trump’s slaughter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the 12-nation trade deal over which the ministry had sweated blood.

But there was worse to come. Two days ahead of the summit, the Meti minister, Hiroshige Seko, was still on the list of attendees — inevitable, it seemed, given the way in which almost all of Mr Abe’s recent overseas jaunts have featured prominently Meti-led entourages of corporate leaders.

Very suddenly, though, he was dropped — ostensibly because Mr Seko’s direct opposite number in Washington has yet to be confirmed. And when it came to the summit highlights, there was a yawning absence of that giant economic package.

It looks on the surface like a humiliation for Meti and, when described from behind the scenes by officials, like even more of one. Mighty Meti the once swaggering global champion of Japan Inc, confined to quarters by a powerful PM and disenfranchised by rival ministries.

The strategy for the summit, whereby both the US and Japan pre-agreed to skim the most obviously volatile issues of trade and currency, appears to have been devised by the foreign ministry (Mofa). Mofa decided, in cahoots with the ministry of finance, that MetI’s painfully prepared gift was powder to be kept dry for a knottier negotiation in the future. It was, most now agree, the right call.

But wiser heads within Meti are not despairing. Indeed, they gleefully see in Mr Trump and his administration a potentially bottomless well of ways to enhance the ministry’s standing with Mr Abe.

The optimism stems not from the warm handshakes and glittering bonhomie of the summit, but from the forged-in-the-1980s, Japan-bashing rhetoric of Mr Trump’s campaign speeches and the protectionist views of the head of his new National Trade Council, Peter Navarro.

Meti has changed a great deal over the years — primarily from controlling hand of Japanese industry to supportive one — but it has never given up both its paramount institutional expertise and relish for Japan-US trade friction.

Mr Trump ended the summit describing the “very, very good bond” he now had with Mr Abe and the assurance: “I’ll let you know if it changes, but I don’t think it will.”

But Meti, whose teeth were cut on the very same 1980s trade clashes that Mr Trump so emotively recalls, knows just how quickly the smiles can fade, and how badly Japan needs Meti when they do.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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