On Sunday, July 22nd, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) won a widely expected victory in upper house elections, securing LDP-coalition control over both houses and placing Japan’s near-term political agenda into Abe’s hands. However, what Abe intends to do or is capable of doing with this opportunity is a source of debate. Despite the LDP’s “landslide” victory, the challenges to Abe’s agenda remain formidable, and contain significant economic, diplomatic, and political hurdles.
First, the PM’s signature “Abenomics” policy of fiscal, monetary, and regulatory reform is expected to go ahead. With G8 approval for such reforms and public optimism for the recovering economy, the success of policies enacted thus far have been a key component in Abe’s victory. The crucial element to watch now is the extent of announced regulatory reforms. Reforms announced before the election were seen by analysts as not going far enough and tepid compared to earlier proposals. Additionally, there are key stakeholders to these reforms who represent vested interests that could undermine its full potential. These stakeholders are not only influential business leaders, but members of the recently-elected upper house. Therefore, the push for deeper reforms is expected to be a far more difficult and uncertain process than the previous policies of fiscal and monetary stimulus.
Second, Abe’s support for nuclear power touches a number of deep nerves. With Abenomics’s devaluing effect on the Japanese yen, energy import prices have been spiking, leading to a widening of Japan’s trade deficit. Some analysts have stated that, in this environment, Japan under Abenomics cannot avoid resorting to nuclear power. The powerful economic impact of nuclear power is part of the LDP’s strong support for restarting the county’s reactors, and regional utilities have applied for permission to restart 12 reactors and could soon gain approval. Despite the LDP’s support, the public is far from sold on nuclear power, with 56% opposing nuclear power and only 28% in favor. Even Abe’s own wife is against nuclear power. However, this opposition did not have any electoral impact – the LDP was the only party to not call for abandoning nuclear power and still attainted a convincing victory.
Third, Abe’s support of joining Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks are potentially problematic. According to government estimates, joining the TPP could boost GDP by 3.2 trillion yen, but also lead to a 3 trillion yen decline in farm and marine production. In one estimate, TPP participation would completely wipe out dairy production in Tottori Prefecture. Abe has vowed to protect agricultural interests, but this could be difficult as the very framework of the TPP calls for abolishing all tariffs within 10 years and tariffs are Japan’s means of protecting its domestic agricultural industry. Japan seems to be hoping for some agricultural concessions from the US in exchange for Japan’s participation in the TPP, and earlier rounds of negotiations revealed a concession where the US would keep tariffs on Japanese cars while Japan would lift their tariffs on US automobiles. This could be a chip in Japan playing for agricultural concessions, but nothing is currently certain.
Finally, Abe could pursue a more nationalistic path for Japan, including amending the Japanese constitution and strengthening Japan’s military. Abe’s first goal in this path is to amend Article 96, an article that stipulates that a two-thirds majority is needed in parliamentary votes for a constitutional amendment, as well as a public referendum. Abe intends to change this law to then require only a simple majority. Changing this amendment would require the two-thirds it itself requires, but there is doubt that Abe has the votes for this – LDP coalition partner the New Komeito Party is reluctant to join in on reforming this amendment.
After this amendment, Abe would pursue a long-sought after revision of Article 9, the pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution. In an interview with Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister Abe rationalizes this action as “putting Japan in the same position as other countries” by having a right to collective self-defense and calling its self-defense forces a “military.” Such proposals could be welcomed by the US military by making the Japanese Self-Defense Force a more active player in regional security.
However, other proposals contain echoes of Japan’s imperial past. Drafts of LDP proposals include changing the structure of Japan’s civil rights, moving away from Western ideals of human rights and containing such policies as submission to a vaguely defined “public interest or order.” While these proposals are doubtful to ever see the light of day, reform of Article 9 and military strengthening is becoming less contentious among the public.
Pushes for a stronger military are no doubt an anathema for Japan’s World War II victims in China and South Korea. With China, a classic security dilemma is forming where each side is strengthening in response to the other. This situation is being fueled by the slowly-escalating Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, which has already caused Sino-Japanese trade to shrink by over 10% and as well as concern in global industries over supply chain security. With South Korea, a perceived lack of adequate contrition from the Japanese government over Japan’s imperial occupation of the Korean peninsula has kept suspicions of Japan’s intentions high. This suspicion has already prevented military cooperation between the two countries, and should nationalism contribute to greater animosity between the two sides, the structural integrity of the US’s regional security framework could be at risk.
Although the recent election has given PM Abe a strong hand in pushing through his own agenda, both foreign and domestic opposition to certain plans, in addition to Japan’s recent history of short-lived PMs, suggest that he should tread carefully. Bread and butter concerns such as the economic recovery should continue to receive the majority of attention, especially as Abenomics is now dealing with its most difficult reforms. Constitutional reforms and nationalistic posturing are both political and diplomatic landmines that should be avoided. Considering the challenges of economic reform, nuclear power, and TPP opposition, further complicating regional relations (or even relations with the US) could lead to a quick end to the “stable” political environment of the LDP’s return. Abe would be wise to further embrace his pragmatism over his nationalistic penchants.