Japan’s Prime Minister is wrapping up the fifth year of his second stint in office with a firm hand on the tiller. Thanks to some clever politics, his party now has a supermajority in both houses of the Japanese Diet: Japan’s bicameral legislature. This has been a year of ups and downs for Shinzo Abe, and although he won his snap election gamble in late October, he remains a controversial figure whose unpopularity prevents him from getting more than a tenuous grasp on the power he has now. His characterization in the American press has been limited to his handshake with U.S. President Trump in February, his experience golfing at Mar-a-Lago, and feeding koi fish, but as the leader of an influential nation in a region which represents the U.S. primary security concerns, he warrants recognition as much more than Trump’s new golf buddy. A consideration of Trump and Abe’s relationship may provide some context for understanding his domestic situation.
Abe and Trump
Abe was the first world leader to visit Trump after the latter won last year’s presidential election, and has tried to maintain a good relationship with the new U.S. president. He has been much more successful at connecting with Trump than South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, in part because of a shared interest in golf.
Another factor in their ostensibly good relationship may be that Abe has not objected to what might be seen as Trump’s belittlement of Japan. Trump’s attitude towards Japan is well represented in his remarks in Tokyo on November 5th, where he emphasized that Japan would always be second to the United States. David Nakamura of the Washington Post called the drawn-out handshake between the two leaders in February “emasculating” for Abe, but again, Abe has voiced no qualms about his treatment by President Trump, which may be a shrewd, if self-deprecating, strategy. Given the regional climate of East Asia, any distance between Japan and the U.S. at this moment could be problematic. Although Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which Japan had anticipated would be a boon to its troubled economy, Abe’s persistent attempts to develop a relationship with Trump may yield better economic cooperation between their two nations.
Born into an intensely political family, it is no surprise that Abe chose a career in the public sector. In keeping with the traditions of his father (former foreign minister) and grandfathers (one a former member of the House of Representatives, the other a former prime minister), Abe has aligned himself with the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Some have gone so far as to label him an ultraconservative. As Dmitry Filippov pointed out in an article published by The Diplomat in June, Abe’s personal writings clear up any ambiguities about his nationalistic ideals, but his practical foreign policy decisions show that he is capable of balancing his convictions and his pragmatism. The LDP has been the main political organization in Japan since WWII and enjoyed U.S. support in an era when Washington was anxious about the spread of communism in Asia. Currently, the LDP is divided into several factions, not unlike political parties in the U.S.
Abe has been the subject of several controversies over the course of his political career. Some of these stem from his ideology, like his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japanese soldiers from WWII, including convicted war criminals, and promotion of what was perceived as pro-nationalist curriculum in public schools. More recently, he has been implicated in two separate corruption scandals both centered on Abe’s colleagues receiving favorable treatment in establishing schools. The allegations of Abe’s involvement only amount to minor offenses, but both scandals came to the forefront in August and were underscored by growing dissatisfaction with “Abenomics,” his controversial economic reform platform.
Late summer also saw North Korea launch two missiles over Japanese territory. Abe’s tough stance on North Korea (i.e., eschewing dialogue and conciliatory measures) has been well received domestically, although, as Filippov points out, foreign policy is even less of a determining factor in Japanese elections than in other nations. This year, however, Abe timed the snap election in such a way that his boost in popularity following his response to North Korea mitigated the negative effects of his being implicated in the aforementioned scandals. At the height of the scandals, it was speculated that Abe would shuffle his cabinet to influence public opinion but after winning the snap election, he has retained his key ministers.
The LDP’s victory in the October 22nd snap election may also be attributable to the lack of solid political opposition. The Japanese left is divided among several parties, and the Democratic Party, the main opposition to the LDP, broke up in the weeks leading up to the election. Abe is not exceptionally well liked by the general public, but his opponents’ inability to rally together has ruined their chances of taking power.
As per the specific request of General MacArthur, the Constitution of Japan drafted in 1947 includes a provision, Article 9, in which Japan surrenders its “right of belligerency,” or the ability to participate in an offensive war. An amendment to the Constitution, which would require a two-thirds supermajority in both houses and a >50 percent majority in a general vote, has never happened. However, Abe has stated that his goal is to amend Article 9 by the year 2020.
This will likely be his best window of opportunity to achieve that goal, especially as Japan’s concern about North Korea grows.
Abe and the L.D.P. may seemingly have the supermajority they need to amend their constitution, but it is not a done deal. The L.D.P. is made up of several factions, some of which are more moderate than Abe’s and which have competing interests. The supermajority is really the product of a coalition between the L.D.P. and the Buddhist Komeito Party, who actually allied with one of Abe’s right-leaning competitors, Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo. Additionally, as was mentioned earlier, Abe is really not that popular, nor is the idea of amending Article 9. Under present conditions, it is unlikely that Abe would be able to successfully change a constitution which has remained unchanged for 70 years, but he is closer than he has ever been. After a few more North Korean missile tests, perhaps things will be different.
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