TV & Radio
Sydney Morning Herald
A faint banzai for Shinzo Abe
September 28, 2006
SHINZO ABE gained an overwhelming mandate from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to become Japan's new Prime Minister, but there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for him at home or abroad. Rightly so. Mr Abe is, at 52, the youngest Japanese prime minister of the postwar era, and is clearly intelligent, charismatic and articulate. But he has taken office in a resurgence of old-style powerbroking between his party's notorious factions, rather than a repeat of the election-winning prowess of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.
In most democracies, Mr Koizumi's sweeping election win in 2004, which restored the Liberal Democratic Party's majority in the Diet, the Japanese parliament, would have kept him in office well into the future and intensified his economic reforms, which famously included a start on privatising the huge postal savings bank. Instead, after setting the completion of the postal reforms far off in 2017, Mr Koizumi rested on his laurels as his departure date - preset by party rules - loomed.
The first test for whether Mr Abe can translate internal party clout into electoral success will be in upper house elections next year. In policy terms, however, he represents a swing back to Japanese-style macho politics after a period when Japan seemed to be getting in touch with its feminine side, so to speak. That shift was symbolised by the likelihood that a female monarch would follow the present crown prince - but that prospect has vanished with the birth of a prince. Japan has also seen the rise of a new economic model - derived from the floating world of anime, manga comics and techno-pop - in place of the old one based on stagnating manufacturing and construction. Japan appeared to be escaping a sterile political and social syndrome that had threatened, among other things, a drastic population decline. It is to be hoped Mr Abe will not let the Government slip back into the grip of the old lobbies, which would see Japan's huge wealth, in the post office and pension funds, continue to be sequestered for obsolete industries and dubious projects in concrete. But the signs are not good, with his cabinet stacked with mostly older supporters, hallmarked by social conservatism.
It will be in foreign policy that Mr Abe produces fireworks. He has declared his intention to mend relations with Asian neighbours but stands on a "patriotic" platform that most Chinese and Koreans would see as reactionary. This includes veneration at the contentious Yasukuni Shrine, and explicit subscription to its apologetics for past militarism. Along with enforcing patriotic symbols in education and blocking reform of gender discrimination, the agenda sits uneasily with another declared policy of restoring Japan to "normal" status. This involves removing the limits on self-defence in Article 9 of the postwar constitution and lifting Japanese participation in military operations with the United States. This shift also embraces Australia and India as new strategic partners for a "democratic" axis in Asia, so its darker nuances will affect us. For Australia, which counts Japan as its biggest trading partner and has invested big in studying Japan, this is a time to stay interested and to do our best to nudge the Japanese in a benign direction.