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Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity

Noriko Hama
17 October 2006

Shinzo Abe could not have hoped for a more dramatic debut as Japan's new prime minister His choice of China and South Korea as his first ports of call was a well calculated move to remedy a long lapse in prime-ministerial diplomacy under Junichiro Koizumi, his Yasukuni-shrine-frequenting predecessor. The trips were conducted in the fullest knowledge that an "anyone but Koizumi" mentality would guarantee him a decent reception in both countries. What was less anticipated was that North Korea's Kim Jong-il would oblige right on cue with a nuclear-weapons test.

All at once, it is solidarity time. Both China and South Korea agree to share harsh words as well as action with Japan against the hermit state, albeit with considerably different degrees of harshness.

All at once, all taboos vanish. Abe's foreign minister (as he was Koizumi's) Taro Aso speculates over the possibility of applying the Perimeter Situation Law to allow Japan to take a more active part in United Nations-led sanctions against North Korea. If the law is indeed invoked (for the first time since it was passed in 1999), it would, for instance, allow Japan's Self-Defence Force to provide logistical support to United States ships as they carry out inspections of cargo traffic in and out of North Korea. From there to more lively action on the part of Japanese forces is only a hairsbreadth's distance.

Meanwhile, Shoichi Nakagawa, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's policy research council chairman floats the idea that the time may have come for Japan to think about arming itself with nuclear weapons of its own. To be precise, what Nakagawa actually said was that we should at least discuss such possibilities. He was not actively promoting the nuclear option, and qualified his remarks almost as soon as they were uttered. The political and media reaction has been fierce. Yet the cat is now out of the bag: a cat that was not even supposed to be in the bag in the first place.

Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School

Also by Noriko Hama in openDemocracy:

"Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains"
(12 September 2005)

"How not to build an East Asian Community"
(9 December 2005)

A switchback ride

Meanwhile Abe himself has studiously stated that there would be no change in Japan's nuclear-arms principle on his watch. He has also moved away from many of his former nationalistic views on Japan's war-crime legacy. He appears to be taking a balanced position on many controversial issues, to the chagrin of opposition party legislators who had relished the prospect of flogging him in parliamentary debate over his reactionary beliefs. Round one to Abe, seems to be the growing body of opinion here in Japan.

And that is what is truly worrying about this man. In the past, Abe has expressed doubts about Japan's need to apologise for colonialist aggression in Asia. He has also been reluctant to endorse a Japanese government admission of the Japanese military's involvement in the comfort-women affair. But now he states that he will uphold and adhere to both those official positions.

That is fine. Yet both are highly sensitive matters. Both strike at the heart of how people view history. Both are topics over which casual reversals of opinions are surely by definition extremely difficult. Yet Abe is able to go from one extreme to the other in one sweep. Conversions of this magnitude cannot and should not be explained away as a matter of political convenience. Who is to say he is not equally capable of sweeping all the way back to where he started out from - with no compunction and no regrets?

As for Abe's domestic policies, they are a curious combination of the simplistic and the evasive. Abe is a man of many words on this front. Too many words. The term verbal diarrhoea comes to mind. The flow of words does not add up to a coherent whole. His conviction that the Japanese economy is going to be able to grow its way out of all of it problems is breathtaking. He seems not to have the slightest doubt that gains in productivity will amply offset declines in the labour force to bring about higher growth over the medium to longer term. More precisely, he seems convinced that the policies he will put in place will get us there.

To be sure, his manifesto is choc-full of words such as "innovation" and "medical frontiers", quite intriguingly all in their English-language originals rather than their perfectly legitimate Japanese alternatives. Jacques Chirac would not be at all happy with the Abe lexicon in terms of linguistic patriotism. Could the resort to English be a ploy to divert attention from the more reactionary parts of the manifesto, where non-Japanese words are conspicuously absent?

A sword in the fog

Linguistics apart, the Abe scenario is something of an evasion. There is no problem with aiming for high growth. That said, the problem is that all of Abe's other lines of thinking in relation to economic management are based on the assumption that his higher-productivity scenario will work to perfection. Perfection is a good target to work toward. At the same time, one has to be honest about what is achievable.

The demographic realities of Japanese society, and the increasing inequalities arising within the Japanese economy, will make it extremely difficult (to put it mildly) to absorb all of the negative forces at work so as to achieve a persistently higher rate of trend economic growth over a sustained period. However, wishful thinking rather than frank admission is the course that Abe has chosen where the economy is concerned. Thus all discussions of tax reform are on hold for the time being.

What is not on hold is education reform, to which Abe has shown uncharacteristically unequivocal dedication. The quality of education indeed is a problem in Japan. Yet we do not need Abe or his handpicked education reform - or "resuscitation" - council to set uniform standards which teachers, and indeed the entire educational community, are compelled to observe. Such control freakishness is cause for concern. The display of unambiguous commitment from an otherwise strategically ambiguous man is also a portent of difficulties to come.

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