Abe Forgoes Yasukuni Visit: The Administration’s Post-Election Policy Directions
Despite the LDP’s strong showing in the July 2013 upper house election, Prime Minister Abe would be wise to focus on economic policy. Any moves to forcefully advance his conservative agenda, notes Senior Fellow Tsuneo Watanabe, would wind up wasting his political capital, which is not as solid as it appears.
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose not to pay his respects at Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the sixty-eighth anniversary of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces to end World War II in 1945. The decision suggests that the prime minister understands the practical and strategic dimensions of both domestic and international politics.
In the July 2013 House of Councillors election, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner New Komeito won a solid majority in the upper house of the National Diet. The victory appeared to give Abe a free hand to advance his personal political agenda for at least three years—until the next upper house election in summer 2016—on the strength of a majority in both houses of the Diet.
Ending the opposition’s control of the upper house with the recent election victory has given Abe far greater political capital than during his previous, troubled tenure as prime minister seven years ago. On September 26, 2006, Abe launched his first administration with strong popular support. He wound up resigning less than a year later, on September 12, though, due to ailing health shortly after his party lost a majority in the July 2007 upper house election.
The LDP lost the 2007 contest due to public criticism over lost pension records and personal scandals involving seven cabinet members. By learning from this bitter experience, Abe has cautiously focused his administration’s energies on winning a majority in the upper house. Abe has avoided visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Class A war criminals, and he has denied any intensions of revising the 1995 war apology by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Instead, he has given top priority to pushing ahead with his “Abenomics” program of economic growth.
This choice has paid off in the form of strong public support. Some wondered whether Abe would now shift course and pursue his own conservative agenda after securing a majority in both houses. China and South Korea have been watching carefully to see whether Abe would visit Yasukuni Shrine, particularly on the symbolic date of August 15.
Playing It Safe
Abe has wisely chosen to play things safe because the results of the LDP victory in July, if we look closely at the results, were a not blank check for the prime minister’s policies. First of all, the LDP did not secure a two-thirds majority in the upper house, something the party holds in the lower house. This means that the LDP would be unable to amend the Constitution—including the war-renouncing Article 9—on its own. Any constitutional amendment requires the endorsement of a two-thirds majority in both houses and a majority in a national referendum.
The LDP’s coalition partner, the New Komeito, is a critical player. It is cautious about amending Article 9, since it is supported by the large Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, which has a liberal and pacifist policy stance. Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was arrested and died in jail during the war in 1944, and the organization has consistently taken a pacifist position, being a staunch defender of Article 9. There is bound to be considerable resistance among Komeito members to joining Abe’s attempt to amend Article 9.
The Komeito has also enjoyed a very close relationship with China for more than four decades. It was the Komeito that helped pave the way for the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China in 1972. While China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has avoided high-level talks with Japanese government leaders since the heightening of tensions over the Senkaku territorial issue, the one exception has been current Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi. Xi welcomed Yamaguchi in Beijing for a friendly meeting in January 2013.
There are a considerable number of liberal and moderate Diet members within the LDP as well who are skeptical of Abe’s desires to amend the Constitution and who wish to reconcile ties with China and South Korea. In a roundtable discussion reported in the August 2013 edition of the influential monthly journal Chuokoron , two senior LDP politicians—Yohei Kono, the former speaker of the House of Representatives famous for his Kono Statement expressing remorse for South Korean comfort women, and current Speaker Bunmei Ibuki—along with former Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who apologized for Japan’s war aggressions, noted that the Abe administration’s conservative agenda lacks a global strategic perspective.
Prior to the upper house election, there was speculation that Abe was looking for partners besides the Komeito to achieve a constitutional amendment, notably the conservative Japan Restoration Party, led by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and the young and charismatic Osaka mayor, Toru Hashimoto. Due to Hashimoto’s controversial remarks justifying the wartime use of comfort women, though, popular support for the JRP plummeted, and the party failed to win enough seats to allow Abe to consider the JRP as an alternative partner to the Komeito.
The Illusion of Strong Public Support
Although the LDP scored solid victories in the lower house election of December 2012 and the July 2013 upper house vote, public support for the LDP is not nearly as high as that the party enjoyed during the Jun’ichiro Koizumi years. For example, the LDP received only 34.68% of the votes cast in the proportional representation constituency in the latest contest, while the three major opposition parties combined received 34.27%: the Democratic Party of Japan got 13.40%, the JRP received 11.94%, and Your Party claimed 8.93%. As the result, the Komeito, which received 14.22%, still holds the casting vote. Voter turnout was also quite low in the two recent elections, suggesting that if unaffiliated voters, many of whom stayed away from the polls, had an incentive to vote against the LDP, the party’s majority could easily have been overturned.
The Komeito has a far greater influence over the LDP than the numbers suggest. Soka Gakkai serves as a formidable election machine for the Komeito. As local LDP chapters have weakened over the past decade, the LDP has come to depend more and more on Soka Gakkai’s support during election time.
Abe’s political capital is quite vulnerable, resting primarily on public support. According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News in July, the approval rate for the administration was 56.2%. This is admittedly quite high, but it represents a drop from 68.0% in June and 72.0% in April. The disapproval rate, meanwhile, was 31.7%, the biggest reason cited for disapproval being that Abe’s economic policy was unlikely to produce positive results.
This suggests considerable skepticism over Abenomics, despite the fact Abe’s economic policy is also the source of his support. His endorsement of an aggressive monetary policy to end deflation and correct the yen’s excessive appreciation has created high expectations for economic growth.
Abe and the LDP also enjoy strong support from Japan’s business community. For example, the influential lobby group, Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), is reportedly considering a resumption of large political donations to the LDP, which had been suspended during the years of DPJ rule. The Japanese business community hopes that Abe will concentrate on policies to promote economic growth, such as by lowering corporate taxes to offset the consumption tax hike slated for April 2014. Another Keidanren wish is for Abe to improve relations with China because of the enormous stakes involved.
Businesses also want Abe to restart nuclear plants to lower utility costs. Polls show, though, that 58.3% of the public are against the resumption of nuclear plants, while only 32.5% support it. This will be one of Abe’s policy dilemmas in pushing for an economic recovery. This is all the more reason the business community is anxious that Abe not waste his limited political capital.
Worries in Washington
Abe has claimed that he has restored ties with Japan’s alliance partner, the United States. The fact of the matter is, however, that the drift in alliance management had been restored by the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda administration. Although Washington welcomes Abe’s respect for the alliance, it is also worried that Abe’s conservative agenda could exacerbate political tensions with China over the Senkaku issue.
The United States seeks reconciliation between Japan and China in both security and economic terms. Even anti-China conservatives in the United States, for example, have begun expressing concern that Abe’s conservative agenda may push another critical US ally, South Korea, to the Chinese side. Generally speaking, US experts are wary of Japan’s turn to the right. Abe’s attempt to change the interpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right of collective defense is seen as an example of such a turn, but closer cooperation with US military operations in a contingency is actually an important agenda for US defense planners. A change in the constitutional interpretation has the potential of alienating the LDP’s coalition partner, the Komeito. In order to avoid rankling the Komeito and South Korea, Abe will need to proceed with restraint. Any rash moves could also lead to losing the confidence of the Obama administration.
So despite the LDP’s election victory in July, the political environment surrounding the Abe administration is not friendly to its conservative agenda. Abe will need to diligently amass additional political capital by focusing on economic growth and pursuing reconciliation with China and South Korean. Abe’s decision not to visit Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 was a sign that he will continue to proceed with caution.