TOKYO — Japan’s main opposition party has elected an outspoken nationalist as its new leader, risking a rise in tensions with China and South Korea over already-bitter territorial disputes. Six years ago, Shinzo Abe resigned after just one year as prime minister, citing poor health. Now he is attempting a comeback after being chosen to lead the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] earlier this week.
The LDP, a largely pro-US, conservative party that has dominated Japanese politics for most of the past six decades, has endured a rare period in opposition since being swept from office by the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan in 2009.
But with a possible election due before the end of the year, Abe is expected to capitalize on the government’s dismal approval ratings following a controversial tax hike — which the LDP helped to push through parliament in return for an early election — and its handling of the economy.
The prospect of an Abe administration will not be welcomed in Beijing and Seoul, as the region struggles to take some of the heat out of territorial disputes that have sent Japan’s relations with its neighbors to their lowest level in decades.
During his recent leadership bid, Abe portrayed himself as the least likely to blink first in disputes with China over the Senkaku islands — (known as the Diaoyu in China) and with South Korea over Takeshima (which the South Koreans call Dokdo).
“Japan’s beautiful seas and its territory are under threat, and young people are having trouble finding hope in the future amid economic slump,” he said. “I promise to protect Japan’s land and sea, and the lives of the Japanese people, no matter what.”
If the LDP fails to win an outright majority, it could attempt to form a coalition that would take Japan even further to the right. Abe is known to admire Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, who recently took his brand of rightwing populism on to the national stage with the formation of a political party that will run in the next general election.
Alone or as part of a coalition, an Abe-led administration could spell more trouble for relations between Japan and its neighbors. He has said he wants to water down a 1995 statement by the then socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, apologizing for Japan’s wartime aggression, and to withdraw a 1993 apology for its use of Korean and other Asian women as sex slaves before and during the war.
During his first term as prime minister, Abe called for the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution and for patriotism to become part of the school curriculum. He granted the defense agency full ministry status and supported a bigger role for Japan’s military in international peacekeeping efforts.
Abe’s election comes as Japan and China traded verbal blows at the UN General Assembly in New York, almost a fortnight after demonstrators attacked Japanese shops, factories and restaurants in dozens of Chinese cities.
Noda said Japan would not compromise on the Senkakus’ sovereignty — essentially the same message delivered by Abe last week — after China’s foreign minister accused Japan of “stealing” its “sacred territory.”
The islands, Noda said, “are an inherent part of our territory in light of history and also under international law. There are no territorial issues as such. Therefore, there cannot be any compromise that represents a retreat from this position.”
The timing of Japan’s next election is uncertain. Noda had promised to dissolve parliament “soon” in exchange for the LDP’s support for his tax reforms earlier this year. Abe, though, may be made to wait; Noda has suggested that the opposition effectively reneged on that deal by supporting a recent non-binding censure motion against him in the upper house.
Abe will be hoping that voters’ have forgotten his first attempt to lead Japan. He resigned in September 2007, citing a chronic bowel condition he says he now manages with a new drug regime. “I’m still responsible for causing all of you trouble with my sudden resignation as prime minister,” he told party members after his victory on Wednesday. “I will do my utmost, with all of you, to regain to power.”
Ill health may have been a cover, however. His administration was marred by scandals and gaffes that led to the resignations of four cabinet ministers and the suicide of another. Abe himself was the target of claims by a magazine that he had donated large sums to his political support group to avoid inheritance tax. A few months before he resigned, voters registered their frustration by condemning the LDP to a heavy defeat in upper house elections.
As the product of an established political family — his father was foreign minister in the 1980s and his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, became prime minister in the late 1950s — Abe is unlikely to endear himself to voters fed up with the inordinate influence wielded by Japan’s “hereditary” politicians – one reason why outsiders such as Mayor Hashimoto are so appealing.
But if his pedigree has a predictable ring to it, Abe has shown himself capable of doing the unexpected. Soon after he became prime minister in 2006, he visited Beijing and Seoul in attempt to mend fences after a steady deterioration in ties under his hawkish predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. If the electorate gives Abe a second chance later this year, he could do worse than repeat the gesture.
Japan’s rightward shift
Japanese politics are shifting to the right, and the impact on regional security could be crucial.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise victory to head Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last week represents a second chance to lead the conservative party and, by early next year, very possibly all of Japan. His first stint as prime minister ended in 2007 with a whimper after just a year. A second go as Japan’s leader is apt to be accompanied by noisier ambitions.
Before one assumes this has something to do with major reforms within the LDP or Abe’s charisma (many Japanese are impressed by neither), Japan’s political currents are primarily driven by disappointment in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda may be the best of three successive DPJ leaders since taking control of the country in 2009, he could feel the full brunt of electoral frustration at the next election, as early as November but no later than next summer.
The DJP gained power three years ago with inflated expectations. The party was only established in 1998 by former LDP kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. Three years ago, Ozawa could take comfort in his revenge against the LDP; today, there is political irony in that the beleaguered Ozawa’s decision to bolt the party this past July had the principal effect of undermining Noda’s political power.
Although the DPJ touts the slogan, “Restoring Vitality to Japan,” its present trajectory is one of rapid deceleration. This sets the stage for Abe to lead the LDP to form a new coalition government in the coming months. And although he, too, mostly likely will not be able to win an outright majority, he is poised to assemble an historic constellation of conservative forces.
The first partnership will be with the brand new Restoration Party, created by 43-year-old Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto. Hashimoto’s meteoric rise is due mostly to dashed expectations over DPJ reforms, and his main prescription is to transfer more power from the central government to Japan’s separate states. But the mayor recently strayed into the realm of national security by calling for Japan to overturn its ban on the right to collective self-defense.
If Abe can win the next election, he would probably, regardless of what else he accomplishes, seek to restore Japan’s international right to self-defense, thereby departing from Japan’s constitutional renunciation of armed force in the wake of World War II. In this, he would not only have the support of conservatives within the LDP and the Restoration Party, but very possibly conservative defectors from the DPJ.
If such a move catalyzed a new conservative movement in Japan, Abe would also have a chance to bring about a long-awaited political realignment of the parties, along a sharper conservative-liberal divide. And if he failed, he would be remembered as the prime minister who sought to open a new chapter on Japan’s postwar international policy.
Abe’s recent promise to “build a strong and prosperous Japan” is a phrase redolent of the “rich nation, strong army” motto adopted by reformers in 19thCentury Japan. Just as nationalists were frustrated with the weak, inward policies of the Tokugawa shogunate, today a conservative coalition is being propelled by what most Japanese see as flagrant assertiveness on the part of China. North Korea’s past abduction of Japanese, and its continuing efforts to build more missiles and nuclear weapons, also remind Japan that it needs not just to be loved, but also to be feared. Although Abe might not exactly resurrect the Samurai spirit, he would seek to make Japan a “normal” nation, capable of using force more akin to other powers.
This turn rightward, however, would not likely sit well with Japan’s neighbors, especially China, and could embroil the world’s three richest countries in conflict. Similarly, a more assertive Japan could also heighten tensions with South Korea; Seoul and Tokyo had been expanding security ties until recent disputes rekindled deep Korean concerns about Japanese revisionism. The United States would be caught in the middle of disputing allies rather than helping to mobilize the region to counter shared threats, including North Korea.
Here is one plausible scenario for conflict is the East China Sea, where Japan administers the Senkaku Islands, which were handed over from the United States four decades ago and administered by Japan since the late 19th century before that. Beijing claims these Diaoyu Islands are historically theirs, and in the past few months has dispatched civilian patrol and fishing vessels to and around the islands.
China’s probing of disputed territories and their territorial seas have been tried in the South China Sea, too. Earlier this year, the Philippines de-escalated tensions around disputed Scarborough Shoal, only to find Chinese civilian vessels emerging with de facto control of the horseshoe-shaped outcrops and the surrounding waters. While China has sought to stake out a legal claim and ensure that the areas were seen as definitely in dispute, the ratcheting up of tensions in the East China Sea could make it hard for either China or Japan to step back in a crisis.
Indeed, some Japanese believe that only Abe will stare down Chinese leaders and force them to back off – the same way he reportedly ignored Foreign Ministry admonitions against his assertive policies several years ago. Likewise, an emboldened China, having successfully coerced the Philippines, may believe that a hardline policy could force Japan to abandon its newfound machismo. The result could be a deadly game of chicken, with the United States forced to decide how to both make good on its alliance commitment to Japan while preserving peace with China.
Even if the island issue does not escalate, however, Japan under Abe would likely pursue other conservative issues with vigor. For instance, an Abe administration would likely double down on developing marines within the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. U.S. Marines have been training and exercising with Japanese forces, which are acting on a 2010 defense plan to place greater priority on Japan’s southwestern group of the Ryukyu Islands (the Nansei Shoto). Next year, Japan will join Australian forces exercising with the Marines in Dawn Blitz 2013, which will stage amphibious landings off of California.
Japan’s rightward political shift may also break other barriers, including the traditional political limitation of spending only 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense. Prime Minister Noda ended the historic ban against exporting defense materiel, and no doubt this new policy would be more assiduously tested. And Abe might expand efforts on missile defenses, cashing in on Noda’s recent decision to deploy a second X-band radar critical for identifying and potential hitting missiles. Finally, while local tensions on Okinawa over finding a replacement facility for Futenma Marine Corps Air Station might remain, the government in Tokyo would probably take a firmer policy line toward supporting an agreed upon alliance plan for continuing the presence of U.S. forces.
One senior Japanese politician recently lamented that Japan had lost its fighting spirit because for too long it has been “America’s mistress.” Although a second Abe administration would be dedicated to preserving America’s security umbrella, it would also pose new challenges for a United States that has been unaccustomed to a vigorous independent policy line emanating from Tokyo. The implications for the region are immense.