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The Mystery Prime Minister
Abe's challenge is to convince the Japanese of the idea that he is cerebral and strategic, whereas Koizumi acted mostly on instinct.
By Gerry Curtis
Oct. 9, 2006 issue - The Japanese don't quite know what to make of their new prime minister, Shinzo Abe—and with good reason. There isn't much in his background to indicate whether he has the ability to run a ministry, much less the entire government, his only previous cabinet post having been as Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary and chief spokesman. He has staked out an ideological position
well to the right of center of his Liberal Democratic Party, but it is uncertain how far his own party will let him go in converting his views into concrete government policies.
The public is supportive of their new and, at 52, refreshingly young leader. Abe's colleagues in the LDP are more coldly pragmatic: once they accepted that there was no other credible contender in the race to succeed Koizumi, they nearly all jumped on the Abe bandwagon. It follows that if Abe falters, it will not be long before they leap off it—and turn against him.
Abe's challenge is to convince the public of the idea that he is cerebral and strategic, whereas Koizumi acted on instinct; and also that he is a team player who knows how to persuade rather than a loner who intimidates. And he has to do all that without appearing to be taking politics backward. Koizumi made style a source of power. Abe must focus on substance and use his policies to rally public support.
The problem is that Abe, even more than most Japanese leaders who have preceded him, has come into power without a clear policy agenda. So far, his speeches have been about the kind of country he would like Japan to become without saying which specific policies he wants the Diet, Japan's Parliament, to adopt. He would like to see Japan revise the Constitution, but he has not said specifically how he'd like to change it, and on what timetable. A well-known proponent of a more muscular foreign policy, his major proposal in his inaugural policy speech in the Diet was to have the government "study" where it might relax the restrictions on the Japanese military.
Abe says that Japan needs to continue to pursue market-oriented reforms, but he also wants the government to take action to counter growing income inequality. All this while cutting spending and wiping out the fiscal deficit. And he has yet to take a position on whether to raise the consumption tax. Abe comes into office at a time when the economy is enjoying its longest and strongest growth in two decades. Not backtracking on Koizumi's reform policies and resisting pressures from within the LDP to increase spending may be all we should expect from Abe on economic policy until sometime after next summer's election. The rather lackluster economic team he has put together is a good indicator that he has none of Koizumi's passion for economic reform.
It is on foreign and security policy that Abe is going to focus his energies, and his first diplomatic initiative will surprise a lot of people, both in Japan and abroad. He will re-establish a dialogue with the leaders of both China and South Korea that was broken by Prime Minister Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead are enshrined. China and Japan are going to enjoy a kind of honeymoon for the next six months or so. But it will last only as long as Abe is able to avoid making a policy decision about visiting Yasukuni.
At some point next year Abe will come to a crossroads. He'll have to decide whether to emulate former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone—another hawk and strong nationalist who understood that, as prime minister, an unemotional assessment of the national interest must trump personal ideological preferences—or whether he will let ideology drive policy. If he does the former, and if the Chinese reciprocate by dropping their use of the history card to extract concessions from Japan, then China and Japan can have a more normal relationship.
Abe cannot prevaricate or straddle the divide for too long. There is a high price to be paid when a new leader uses bold rhetoric not backed by concrete policies. Mixed messages about domestic priorities raise concerns about his commitment to reform. Strong nationalist rhetoric creates apprehensions among those in East Asia, who fear an expansion of Japanese military power, and creates unrealistic expectations in Washington among those who desire it. Having a prime minister who talks tough about Japan's interests on the world stage may make a lot of Japanese feel good for a while. But before long, people will want to know what the prime minister is doing rather than what he is saying. Abe does not have time on his side. The window of opportunity for him to show the Japanese public and the world what kind of government he intends to lead is open now.
Curtis is a professor of political science at Columbia University.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.