Prime Minister Abe resigns and the approval ratings for the Cabinet rise. What can it mean? Mizuno Tetsu considers the accomplishments of the second Abe administration, the state of party politics in Japan and the challenges facing the administration to come.
On August 28, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo held a press conference and expressed his intention to resign because of his illness. His Cabinet ended on September 16.
Immediately after this press conference, the opposition parties, the media and social media erupted with criticism of the Abe administration and the Prime Minister himself for his resignation for reasons of illness. Such criticism could hardly be avoided seeing that Abe’s resignation before the end of his term owed to a reoccurrence of the same illness that ended the first Abe Cabinet.
However, something strange then happened.
The outcome of a public opinion poll conducted by the Asahi shimbun newspaper on September 2 and 3 was met with astonishment. In response to the question “How do you rate the performance of Prime Minister Abe during his tenure of seven years and eight months?” a total of 71% of respondents said that they approved with 17% responding “Approve to a large degree” and 54% “Approve to some degree.” The Abe administration’s “diplomacy and security guarantees” policy had the highest approval rating (30%) followed by the economy (24%). The poll by the Asahi shimbun, which had repeatedly expressed harsh criticism of the administration, caused a great deal of surprise.
Several factors may conceivably provide some context for the high ratings. One factor is a reluctant praise that resembles sympathy for Prime Minister Abe who held the reins of government up to the breaking point while living with illness. Others are a public opinion backlash against the opposition parties, primarily the former DPJ, which continued their anti-Abe stance without any discernible policy discussions; a backlash against the media where, similarly, the administration was repeatedly criticized; or possibly a nod of approval based on comparison with the next administration or the opposition parties who are unable to take over the reins of government.
Other public opinion polls also showed high approval ratings. The Yomiuri shimbun newspaper, regarded as favoring the Abe administration, conducted an opinion poll on September 4 to 6, which found a rise in approval ratings from 37% in the previous month to 52%. In addition, JNN, the broadcast channel associated with the Mainichi shimbun, a critic of the Abe administration, conducted a poll on September 5 and 6 where a total of 62.4% of respondents were “Extremely supportive” (10.7%) or “Supportive to some extent” (51.7%).
I would venture to say that criticism is easy and sounds good. However, the poll ratings can perhaps also be viewed as retaliation against corrupt actors who do not earnestly discuss the future of the country, but are consistently critical. Approval ratings for the former DPJ faction, which fell from power, lost several elections, and has gone through repeated alliances and ruptures, have actually not risen at all. Around the same time as Abe’s resignation, more than 150 members of the opposition joined forces to form a new party. In the aforementioned public opinion poll by the Asahi shimbun, the approval ratings for the political parties was 40% for the LDP, 3% for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the leading actor in the new party merger, and no more than 1% for the Democratic Party For the People (DPFP). Similarly, when the JNN poll asked about the CDP and DPFP merger, 30% of respondents said they were hopeful, while 62% said they had no hopes for the merger.
All in all, this is the mood in Japan as we head into the political season.
Administrations Twice Punished by the Nation
The second Abe Cabinet was inaugurated in December 2012. In September 2009, the Aso Cabinet had been defeated in the Lower House election, but three years and three months after the launch of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regained the seat of government as the ruling party.
The DPJ scored a major victory in the Lower House elections at the end of August 2009 by prioritizing the 2009 DPJ Manifesto.
On September 16, 2009, Prime Minister Hatoyama delivered his speech at the press conference after the inauguration of his Cabinet, a coalition led by the DPJ with the Social Democratic Party and People’s New Party.
He repeated his vow to carry out politics that sheds its dependence on the bureaucracy in his Cabinet and said, “In order to forge a nation of political leadership, popular sovereignty, and local sovereignty in the truest sense, we will have to conduct various kinds of trial experiments.”
However, the DPJ manifesto, which was anti-LDP at the core and aimed at usurping government, lacked feasibility. At any rate, with no experience of operating government saddled with the misfortune of the Great East Japan Earthquake during its term of three years and three months, the party strayed off course causing conflict within the coalition government and sowing confusion in internal politics, economy and diplomacy. The upshot was that the DPJ-led “trial experiments” championed by Hatoyama ended in failure.
In 2009, the nation punished the LDP for being accustomed to the seat of government. In the Lower House elections three years later, it was the turn of the DPJ coalition government to be punished.
Partly a backlash against the DPJ failures, the overwhelming victory was also due to the expectation that the LDP under Abe would clean up after the DPJ.
Japan is Back!
The economy was central to the second Abe Cabinet.
On January 28, 2013, Prime Minister Abe delivered his Policy Speech at the 183rd Session of the Diet. He stressed the issues where the DPJ had failed.
There is the crisis of the Japanese economy, in which we have been unable to extract ourselves from the bog of deflation and a strengthening yen, while the enormous sum of what is said to be up to 50 trillion yen in national income has been lost along with industrial competitiveness, and no matter how diligently one works, one’s day-to-day living never improves.
There is the crisis of reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake, in which progress has been sluggish while nearly 320,000 people remain unable to return to their beloved hometowns.
There is the crisis of our diplomacy and security, in which the cornerstone of our foreign policy has become eroded and, as if the fragility of our position has been perceived by others, there have been ongoing provocations against our sovereign territory, territorial waters, and territorial airspace as well as against our sovereignty itself.
It simply will not do for us to stand idly by.
In February 2013, Kuroda Haruhiko, who had served as President of the Asian Development Bank, was appointed Governor of the Bank of Japan. Saying “there is plenty of room for monetary easing” he embarked on a policy of large-scale monetary easing and deflation.
Six months later, Prime Minister Abe announced the three arrows that would come to symbolize Abenomics.
The “three arrows” were monetary easing by the Bank of Japan, fiscal stimulus through government spending, and structural reforms. On this basis, Abe’s economic policy started to move.
Additionally, there was Abe’s foreign policy.
On February 22, 2013, shortly after he had assumed office, Prime Minister Abe was in the United States. After meeting with President Obama, he made a policy speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The title of his speech was “Japan Is Back.”
He said, “I am back, and so shall Japan be” and talked about the “three tasks.”
Firstly, when the Asia-Pacific, or the Indo-Pacific region gets more and more prosperous, Japan must remain a leading promoter of rules. By rules, I mean those for trade, investment, intellectual properties, labor, environment and the like.
Secondly, Japan must continue to be a guardian of global commons, like maritime commons, open enough to benefit everyone.
Japan’s aspirations being such, thirdly, Japan must work even more closely with the U.S., Korea, Australia and other like-minded democracies throughout the region.
Additionally he said, “A rules-promoter, a commons’ guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies, MUST Japan be.”
On the whole, these were the two main policies of the Abe Cabinet. He adhered to these early policies until the end of his administration.
A Question of Mood
Now, once again, it is a question of mood.
Despite the aforementioned high approval rating, we cannot definitely state that any of the policies of the Abe Cabinet have been successful.
Deflation has not been resolved and there is no discernible exit for the monetary easing policy. The economy, which decelerated with the consumption tax increase in October 2019, was hit by COVID-19 before recovering. We are now in a situation where a trial and error approach to countermeasures is unavoidable.
The same is true of foreign diplomacy. The Abe Cabinet was unable to get results or make a start on issues they had identified as important, including the issue of the victims of abductions by North Korea, or the Northern Territories dispute with Russia.
However, the second Abe Cabinet or, possibly, the reinstatement of government by the LDP produced major recoveries for the Tokyo Stock Price Index (figure 1), the Nikkei Stock Average, and the yen/dollar exchange rate (figure 2). In addition to a request to business circles to increase the minimum wage, both the unemployment rate and the employment rate were improved. The Cabinet also boosted women’s participation in society through Womenomics and by engaging with the World Assembly for Women (WAW!), which advocates women’s empowerment and gender equality. There were big improvements to the problem of children on standby for daycare, which produced improvements to the issue of the M curve, which symbolized women returning to work after being away from the workplace because they left after marriage or after childbirth.
Looking at foreign diplomacy, it was a major achievement to create the infrastructure of the National Security Strategy in 2013 and the National Security Secretariat in 2014. The Abe Cabinet developed “a foreign policy that shows its face” by touring eighty countries around the world and championing “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map.” Among these initiatives, the TPP11 and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) are the flag-bearers for successful free trade. The Cabinet has also continued to emphasize the international rule-based framework and has advocated for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept (FOIP). In addition, the stormy relations between Japan and China caused by the DPJ administration’s policy of nationalizing the Senkaku Islands have nearly normalized even as the conflict between China and the United States has caused waves in the international community.
Extending over seven years and eight months, the administration also suffered scandals and strong criticism by the nation. However, even though they have reduced the backlash against the DPJ, the actions of Prime Minister Abe in the areas of the economy and foreign diplomacy have clearly changed the mood in Japan. This is not limited to Japan, but we can say that the mood also extends to the international community.
It is said that it takes half a century to evaluate world events from a historical perspective. It will likely take some time to evaluate the Abe Cabinet.
Needless to say, the presence of a media that scrutinizes and criticizes the government is extremely important. However, as the eyes of the Japanese media have turned inward after the age of ideologies when there is, in a sense, hope for the future of the international community, has the rough-and-ready criticism not been too harsh? Such criticism turns into a mood that influences the administration. With the exception of the Koizumi Cabinet and the Abe Cabinet, may it not have been a factor behind the short-lived administrations since the fall of the Berlin Wall? Koizumi won over the masses by saying that he would crush the LDP, which he himself belonged to. In the case of Abe, the results are mixed, but did the Cabinet not last so long because Abe gradually implemented the “politician-led initiatives” that the DPJ administration had been unable to introduce and apply.
What about the next administration? Will the next leader definitely state during this political season what aspects of the Abe administration will continue and which ones will not? It is possible that the aforementioned public opinion polls will put pressure on the new Cabinet to continue the Abe administration. In any case, the new administration will have to deal with the issues left behind by the Abe administration. They are nothing but difficult issues that previous administrations have been unable to resolve including the abduction victims, the Northern Territories, and constitutional reform, which is on the LDP party platform. It is possible that the new administration will dissolve the Lower House and call elections in order to challenge the difficult issue of structural consolidation.
It is likely that one major issue after another, all beset with uncertainties, including COVID-19, the post-coronavirus world, protectionism and unilateralism, the U.S.-China conflict, and the North Korea issue will come crashing down like a huge wave. To what degree will public sentiment withstand such fears and uncertainty? Will the next administration be able to work out policies that will satisfy public opinion and bring about peace of mind? The only point of clarity is that political leadership in the future will not be easy.
MIZUNO Tetsu is a freelance writer.
Note: This article first appeared in the Sept./Oct issue of the Japan Journal.