After the election victory, a change of image for Japan and Shinzo Abe?

Prime Minister Abe’s image, whether deserved or not, is a problem to him, and to Japan

Visiting Fellow

Given the poor shape of the Democratic Party of Japan, the ruling coalition victory in the December general election was no surprise. The Liberal Democratic Party’s head and prime minister, Shinzō Abe, a conservative, was elected in 2012 on a mandate to rid Japan of deflation and restore growth. He is also committed to reforming Japan’s defense policy and, if possible, (provided a consensus on a new wording can be found) to revising its Constitution.

Has the renewal of his mandate bought him the time to do so? The challenge lies in the fact that the Constitution and its pacifist clause are core elements of the Japanese people’s post-war identity. A revision of the Constitution would also be questioned internationally, most notably by South Korea and China. 

The fact that Prime Minister Abe is perceived as ultra-conservative is an obstacle in this respect, in particular in reshaping Japan’s defense policy. Both in Asia (although Southeast Asian countries are more receptive than South Korea and China) and in the West (where such staid media as The Economist, the Financial Times or Le Figaro all depict Shinzō Abe as ultraconservative and nationalist), his initiatives are scrutinized and his purpose questioned. 

Prime Minister Abe’s image, whether deserved or not, is a problem to him, and to Japan. Japan’s defense law should be reformed and simplified: citizens are bemused by its complexities, ad-hoc laws must be crafted to meet specific, political needs, international partners are uncertain of what assistance to expect from Japan, and less friendly countries criticize Japan as being hypocritical.

Should the prime minister wish to pursue a reformist agenda in the field of defense, he should first change his image. 

To do so, he should first use his nomination power to appoint knowledgeable and impartial figures, to be chosen amongst, perhaps, academics. He has done exactly the opposite since 2012. This would require some trust and relinquishing a certain degree of power, but would earn the prime minister much credit. 

Secondly, he should commit himself and encourage lawmakers close to him to refrain from making statements on history. This would solve Japan’s problem of not speaking with one voice on history issues. Furthermore, Japan has no law restraining freedom of expression and a tense political climate between South Korea and Japan has recently led to occasional expressions of racism in Japan. A law could be enacted banning racist declarations. This would allow Japan to show concern for the treatment of its South Korean residents or nationals of South Korean origins.

Lastly, Prime Minister Abe should pursue the fusion of two high school curricula – the world history curriculum, which includes the history of the Second World War (1937-1945), and the Japan history one, which disregards it. The latter being more familiar and narrow, it is the one which most pupils choose to take on at school to pass the challenging university entrance examinations. This would display the government’s willingness to ensure that young Japanese  students are brought up in an educational system which provides adequate information on Japan’s war crimes. 

Those measures would display Prime Minister Abe’s strong commitment to reaching a middle ground between the conservatives in his party and its moderates, as well as answering to international opinion. Such measures would be well perceived by the great number of floating voters who are not committed to one party and who make up the biggest share of the electorate. They would also have the merit of not requiring cooperation of any kind on the part of South Korea or China – and none can be expected of them as history, for many reasons, is too useful a card for them to relinquish. In so doing, Abe would pave the way for a better understanding between the youth of Japan and that of its neighbouring countries. But most importantly, from the perspective of lawmaking, he would prevent suspicion over his defense agenda. From a personal and pragmatic perspective, this would ensure Prime Minister Abe’s reputation as a statesman, one that is aware of his country’s long-term interest, and not only a partisan leader. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has a fair chance of leaving his mark on Japan’s – and even Asia’s – history.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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