Monday, October 15, 2012

Second Time's A Charm: How Being a Hawk Can Help Mr. Abe Succeed

I first became interested in Japanese politics when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was pushing for the privatization of Japan’s postal service. He spoke with lofty rhetoric and exiled members of his own party who opposed his vision for Japan, and became one of Japan’s most revered leaders in decades. I remember how my friends and I were excited to see how Mr. Koizumi’s protege and successor, Shinzo Abe, would be as the next Prime Minister of Japan. But when Mr. Abe became Prime Minister in 2006, his cabinet and party immediately became engulfed in corruption scandals and Japan’s economic growth began to decline. After being in office for a little less than a year, Mr. Abe resigned, triggering a long series of failed prime ministers who have not been able to keep office for more than fifteen months.

But the stars have aligned for Mr. Abe. He was recently elected as the LDP’s president and his party is expected to win the general election, which will take place before May 2013. Once his party gains a majority in the Diet, Mr. Abe will become the next prime minister of Japan. Besides the fact that it is rare to see a Japanese politician take the role of prime minister twice in his career, it is particularly surprising that Mr. Abe will be the one returning to lead Japan.

During his tenure as prime minister, many Japanese citizens found his security policies too hawkish. His 2006-07 security policies had three pillars: 

  • First, contribute to global peace and stability. Mr. Abe hoped to accomplish this by revising article 9 of the constitution and the definition of collective self defense, allowing Japanese forces to come to the aid of other countries.
  • Second, organize a formal multi-national security council with all Asian nations that share the same values as Japan. Mr. Abe hoped that this would give Japan the ability to coordinate and execute regional security policies.
  • Third, transform the military alliance with the US from a defensive shield towards a more explicit expeditionary role. This was largely part of Mr. Abe trying to transform the Japanese military’s role towards one of action and legitimacy.

Removing or even revising article 9 was particularly controversial in 2007, and likely hurt Mr. Abe’s popularity as prime minister. But now that the Senkaku island conflict has taken the media by storm, the Japanese public may be more receptive to rethinking the purpose and role of their self defense forces.

As Prime Minister, Mr. Abe would likely continue supporting an expanded role for the Japanese Self Defense Forces. I expect Mr. Abe to push for some short-term security changes, like renaming Japan’s Self-Defense Force to more accurately reflect its status as a real military, or urging US marines to introduce the MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa.

And expect Mr. Abe to be strongly supportive of Japan’s ownership of the Senkaku islands. In a recent interview, Mr. Abe stated that he would take “firm action to protect the islands and the territorial waters around them.” He insisted that there are “no territorial disputes over the islands; They unquestionably belong to Japan.”

But there are some analysts who believe that Mr. Abe doesn’t even have a chance at even becoming prime minister. Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, believes that Japanese citizens would never vote for the LDP as long as Mr. Abe is at the helm. “For ordinary Japanese who are not ideologically leaning one way or another, I think they’ll say, ‘Really? That’s the guy who quit and left Japan in limbo,’” stated Mr. Nakano.

I don’t prescribe to Mr. Nakano’s pessimism regarding the LDP unable to regain a majority in the Diet with Mr. Abe as its leader. But it is without a doubt that Mr. Abe will have to prove himself either before or immediately after becoming prime minister. He failed his first time around, and he will need to show the nation that he is a competent leader. Lucky for him, his right-wing rhetoric could capture the hearts and minds of the Japanese, especially as tension grows in East Asia.  

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