The following syndicated column by Asia Media Founder Tom Plate appeared Monday 15 Dec. in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong: There will be little rejoicing over this weekend’s Japanese election. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains leader of his party and his country, but who can imagine him winning a single popularity contest anywhere else in the neighbourhood of East Asia? Nor are the Japanese people themselves exactly reacting with wild celebrations.
And yet the all-but-predictable result does provide Japan’s neighbours with something they haven’t seen lately: continuity at the top of Japan’s polity. Abe does look to be providing that; and this determined politician does not give up easily. In 2006, he became Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister, serving for only 12 months, but then re-emerged in 2012 for a second chance.
Now, with a total of three years under his belt, and a presumed four more to go, history may record him as a longer-serving prime minister than Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) or Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-1987) – past mega-stars of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. So whether he succeeds or fails, Abe is anything but just another revolving-door leader. Like him or not, he deserves to be taken seriously.
But where does Abe take Japan now? Consider that his blue-blood genes are embedded in nationalistic DNA: his career-diplomat father was foreign minister under Nakasone and his mother’s father was a deeply controversial prime minister who also served in Hideki Tojo’s wartime cabinet. The worry, then, is that Abe’s roots offer dangerous strands of nationalism, fundamentalist values and militarism.
And, while clearly the man of the moment, Abe might also be understood as Japan’s leader mainly by rank default. The opposition is such a pathetic shambles that the polity has reverted back to little more than a one-party deal. Many LDP voters took the resigned, pragmatic view that some kind of national leadership was preferable to none at all. Landslides are easier when the opposition is vacuous.
This domestic vacuum could make Abe more consequential abroad as well as at home. The world’s stake in Japan’s future is anything but peripheral. It remains the third-largest economy. If its political system now resembles what we Americans, half-jokingly, would call an Edsel (an iconic auto failure in US corporate history), economically it can still shine like a Lexus. Everyone accepts that China’s own economic rebirth would have been even more difficult without productive and consuming neighbours like Japan, not to mention South Korea (and, of course, the US).
For the foreseeable future, Tokyo remains America’s default Asian ally. US opinion polls reaffirm support for that. But that sense of need could weaken if the Abe government becomes known for a policy of aggressive nationalism, which will trigger an overwhelmingly unfavorable reaction in the region, as well as for economic policies that backfire by shrinking Japan further.
The idea that the US could ever switch from a policy of containing China to one of seeking to align with it is far-fetched. But Japanese rearmament and militarism could do the trick if it unites all of East Asia, with its unresolved wartime bitterness, against Tokyo.
This is why Abe would be foolish to choose that route, and wiser by far to dig deeper into his DNA and summon up his distant genetic linkage with another prime minister, Eisaku Sato. The second Asian to accept a Nobel Peace Prize, Sato was cited “for his renunciation of the nuclear option for Japan and his efforts to further regional reconciliation”.
The Japanese people themselves, still largely pacifist, deserve better than Tojo II. They deserve a transformative leader who can refocus the economy and reorient foreign relations. They deserve another Sato.
Not much that Abe has tried in his first three years has worked, except the deft engineering of his re-election. Rooting for Abe to succeed might strike many in East Asia as emotionally problematic. But rooting for Japan to fail is a very risky business in all kinds of consequential ways. That’s one reason why I always root for Japan.
University professor Tom Plate is the author of many books on Asia, including the just published In the Middle of China’s Future
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as East Asia should get behind Abe’s push to revitalise Japan