TV & Radio
Viewpoint: Abe is no Reagan
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
By William Pesek
Shinzo Abe seems to be channeling the spirit of Ronald Reagan. Japan's prime minister is championing Reagan-like policies such as restoring national pride and deregulating a rigid economy.
Given Abe's focus in his first four months, it's not surprising that pundits are buzzing about "Morning in Japan." It's a not-so-subtle reference to the U.S. president's 1984 re-election campaign. Reagan ran on a platform of the United States being "prouder, stronger, better" after his first four years.
Many credit Reagan, who died in 2004, with restoring U.S. power and prosperity after a period of economic hardship and national soul- searching.
It's not unlike what many of Japan's 127 million people have entrusted Abe to do.
They are likely to be disappointed.
Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, unleashed a bit of Reaganomics on Asia's biggest economy in his five years in power. He worked to push through spending cuts, tax reductions for the wealthy, privatization and deregulation.
Koizumi had to move gingerly, given Japan's preference for consensus over conflict. Yet his direction was clear enough.
The idea always was for Koizumi's successor to build on his achievements, no matter how incomplete. Abe's charge was to bring Japan's recovery to the next level, encouraging companies and households to spend more and making an over-regulated economy more efficient.
Abe is also focused on "building a beautiful country," something that seems quite Reaganesque. It's not about planting trees or cleaning up the streets — it's about boosting national pride, instilling patriotism in youngsters and, ultimately, creating a bigger global role for the nation.
Yet Abe is unlikely to succeed on the economy. Nor is he likely to bolster Japan's confidence, at least not with the strategies he's currently employing.
One can argue whether Reaganomics is best for Japan. Reagan's "trickle-down economics" and cuts in welfare spending favored the wealthy, widening the gap between rich and poor. He built up a massive public debt and his deregulation efforts arguably contributed to the U.S. savings and loan crisis.
In fact, looking at Japan right now, it seems Reaganomics is gaining some traction. Stocks are up, the yen is at four- year lows, corporations are enjoying record profits, production is booming, and yet middle-class households have concerns about the future and aren't increasing spending.
Even so, few will quibble with the idea that Japan is ripe for economic streamlining, whether it be along the lines of a Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher.
As a conservative, Abe isn't likely to deviate from Koizumi's free-market philosophies. The trouble comes in the area of implementation. Koizumi was always a big-picture, macroeconomic guy; his plans were a broad blueprint for how Japan needs to change, and he put the issue on the front burner.
What Japan needs now is an economics wonk to get under the hood and engineer a major tuneup.
Other than choosing Koji Omi, a tax-policy expert, as his finance minister, Abe has dropped few hints he's the micro- economy man that Japan needs. In fact, the question doesn't seem to be whether Abe will accelerate Japan's economic upgrade, but if he can keep the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from returning to its sclerotic tendencies.
Japan, it's often forgotten, is a one-party state. Sure, there are opposition parties, yet Japan's elections are rarely more exciting than Singapore's. Even Koizumi rode to power in April 2001 with the slogan "Change the LDP, Change Japan."
In other words, the man perceived to be Japan's biggest reformer in decades put his political party before the nation.
Abe can only do as much as his party allows him, and his support is sliding. A Sankei newspaper survey this week showed Abe's approval rating (39.1 percent) fell below his disapproval rating (40.9 percent). Two members of his Cabinet have already resigned in separate scandals. Another, the health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, has come under criticism for calling women "baby-making machines" in a speech on Saturday.
Abe's growing unpopularity appears to be sharpening his attention on noneconomic issues — like his "beautiful country" campaign.
While Reagan was dubbed "The Great Communicator," Abe is struggling to explain what exactly he means with all this talk about tweaking the education system to boost patriotism. The fact he's articulated it in a book called "Toward a Beautiful Country" hasn't clarified things.
As his country's first prime minister born after World War II, the 52-year- old Abe wants to rid Japan of historical baggage. Hence his early efforts to improve relations with China and South Korea. Koizumi damaged ties with annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 convicted war criminals are honored among the dead.
Yet national pride can't be taught in the schools of an open society any more than Abe's reminder that the economy is growing again will get households to spend more.
If Abe can heal old wounds in Asia and restore Japan's economic power globally, the respect he desires for his country may follow.
Giving Japanese more hope for the future is key. China's 10 percent-plus growth has drawn attention away from Japan, and cheap Chinese labor is holding back wage gains in Japan.
Politicians in Tokyo need to raise optimism among young Japanese and improve the nation's outlook.
We can debate whether applying full-blown Reaganomics is best for Japan. Either way, Abe doesn't seem the person to do it.