Shinzo Abe: out of time

Noriko Hama
24 August 2007

He came, he was blind, he was slaughtered. Shinzo Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister of Japan in September 2006 claiming he would put an end to Japan's post-war regime. He looks well on the way to achieving that very goal. For what was Japan's post-war regime if not the overwhelming political dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (Jiminto / LDP), whose party leadership Abe clings to in face of calls for his resignation across the country? A seasoned member of the opposition went on record saying he hopes Abe will stay, as that would give it the best chance yet of winning the next general election, due by September 2009.

The LDP's massive defeat in the elections on 29 July 2007 - leaving it with a diminished group of eighty-three seats in the chamber, part of a 109-strong coalition grouping that is now outnumbered by the 139 commanded by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto / DPJ) - was a severe shock to the system. Since then, it has been a case of the ship abandoning its captain. Everybody who is anybody is distancing himself from the party leader with great alacrity. Even the distraction of Abe's visit to India on 21-23 August, where he grandly talked of a "broader Asia" that encompasses Japan, Australia, the United States, and his hosts (but not, significantly, China) has not stilled the criticism at home.

The implosion of the LDP can only be good news for Japanese democracy. If Shinzo Abe manages to singlehandedly arrange such an outcome, he does indeed deserve a place in history as the regime-changer he so wanted to become.

A self-inflicted wound

A combination of cock-ups, financial scandals, gaffes and farce was responsible for the LDP's election demise. Records on public-pension contributions were lost en masse because of sloppy book-keeping at the social-security agency. The faking of office accounts was revealed as standard practice among LDP members of parliament. Ministers simply could not keep their mouths shut about such taboo subjects as the atom-bomb and Alzheimer's disease. The agriculture and fisheries minister appeared before the media with his face mysteriously covered in sticking-plaster. He was a hurried replacement for a predecessor who had committed suicide in the wake of the office-accounts affair. Band-aid man has also subsequently been forced to resign.

From habitual cunning, or desperation, or a combination of both, there was actually an effort among the LDP party executive to portray Abe as the hapless victim of this series of mishaps. The public however, would have none of it. Indeed it was actually Abe's seeming nonchalance amid all these events that made people so angry. Prince among LDP princes - the son and grandson of cabinet ministers - there was ever a touch of the "let them eat cake" about Abe that people increasingly found totally unpalatable.

Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School. She writes regularly and commentates frequently in leading journals (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, Financial Times) and broadcasting media (NHK, BBC, CNN). Her publications include (as co-author) Can the Dollar Recover? (1992) and (as contributor) The Japanese Economy in Synopsis (2005)

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)"
Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity"(18 October 2006)"
The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?" (17 April 2007)

New Japan, old politics

The distaste for such insensitivity is all the more acute now that globalisation has come to Japan in a big way. The resulting emergence of income-gaps, social inequality, and regional disparity all call for welfare measures of a type that was not needed in the Japan of previous years. Gone are the days when jobs were for life, pay scales were inviolate, and loyalty between large corporations and small- and medium-sized suppliers was sacred. Today, winners take all and losers lose all. The rules of the global jungle are now very much a fact of Japanese economic life. And the more the Japanese market functions like a normal market, the greater the need for social policies to prop up the down-and-outs. This is the proper relationship between the private and public sectors. Helping the weak is what the public sector is there for.

True, the Japanese economy did need to change its ways and become more open and flexible. Competition did need to play a bigger role in determining who did what, when and where. This is starting to happen. Not by virtue of reform policies, but by the sheer pressure of globalisation. And now that market forces are starting to do their job, it is time for policy to start doing its rightful job too, by providing better welfare-support arrangements.

The prime minister however, missed the point completely. He just kept on lecturing people about productivity increases, innovation and efficiency gains. He sounded like a badly misguided business-school teacher. His patronising homilies only served to enrage further an already furious electorate. Abe might want to keep claiming credit for yesterday's victories over anti-reformists. People were and are fighting today's battles for survival.

A demand for change

The post-election reversal of roles in the upper house leaves scope for political ambiguity. The cup is half-full in the sense that Japan is halfway towards a change of government. It is also half-empty in the sense that the opposition does not have a credible set of alternative ideas with which to fill the vacuum left by Abe's effective downfall (see Andrew Stevens, "Japan's lost election", 31 July 2007).

Many fear the latter more than they welcome the former. Or more precisely, they believe that the opposition has too many conflicting ideas within itself ever to be able to make up its mind effectively about anything. People are well aware of the extent to which the DPJ benefited from Abe's series of own- goals rather than articulated its own positive agenda. It was really fascinating to sit in as a commentator in an election-special radio talk-show as the votes were being counted. The moment the LDP defeat became a sure thing, listeners' phone-in comments and email messages underwent a sea-change. The voicing of anger and frustration targeted at the LDP stopped altogether. It was replaced by a chorus of warnings to the opposition that it had better get its act together and start acting like a party.

People are right to doubt the opposition's ability to do this, the DPJ's advance in opinion polls notwithstanding. Yet the mood of the nation is definitely demanding change. It is the demand for a political mind set that is better attuned to the underlying socio-economic conditions of today The LDP's mode of thinking, so embedded in post-war Japanese politics and so embodied by Shinzo Abe and his ancestry, is too outmoded to respond to the 21st-century public citizenry. So Shinzo Abe was quite right to call for a regime change. He may get it too.

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