Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

"Post-war regime" defeated Abe
Fukuhara Koichi / Journalist

November 7, 2007
Last September when the then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his policy speech at the extraordinary session of the Diet, he strongly questioned if Japan could abandon its international responsibility, widely acclaimed abroad, by stopping the fuel-supplying operation of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces(MSDF) vessels in the Indian Ocean in accordance with the special anti-terrorism law. A few days later, however, he abruptly resigned from Premiership even just before the Opposition's questions began; he simply said that "It has become difficult for me to promote my policies."

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) quickly held an election and on September 23 elected, as its new leader, the former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, who defeated LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso. A new government was sworn in on September 26. Mr. Fukuda said, "The government has lost the trust of the people, so this is a back-to-the-wall government in which no mistakes are allowed." He appointed many faction leaders to important positions both in the party and in the administration, and kept most of the ministers of the Abe cabinet.

The new lineup, though seen as an effort to avoid strife over party and cabinet posts and strengthen the defense, was generally received favorably for the time being. However, it cannot be denied that the new cabinet lacks freshness and appeal with little hope for new policies. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in control of the Upper House since July elections, is bent on further shaking the government and forcing the dissolution of the Lower House before next summer. With the strength of the government and opposition in the divided Diet hanging in balance it is very difficult to foresee what the future has in store for Japan's domestic politics.

A year ago, when Mr. Abe inherited a two-thirds majority in the Lower House from former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, he paraded his youth as "the first prime minister born after the war" and advocated constitutional revision. Why was the Abe government, which started out with so much fanfare, so short-lived and why did it come to such an inglorious end?

First of all, the political asset inherited from the Koizumi government was grand in appearance but it involved so many structural and policy inconsistencies that it was difficult to manage for Mr. Abe, who did not have the charisma of Mr. Koizumi.

Secondly, surrounding himself with his staff, Mr. Abe dreamed of leading a Prime Minister-led government modeled on the U.S. presidency, but under Japan's parliamentary system of government, it was difficult to coordinate policies within the ruling party and with the various ministries, and he could not maintain the momentum of power.

Thirdly, Mr. Abe's favorite slogans such as "a beautiful country" and "ending the post-war regime" were vague in substance and did not have the impact to materialize and promote actual policies.

In short, "the post-war regime," having continued for 60 years under a constitution extolling peace and democracy, had come to suit the mentality of the Japanese people and Japan's political traditions, and it was a much stronger force than Mr. Abe thought.

Mr. Koizumi's structural reform was also a fierce power struggle within the LDP as exemplified in his words, "I am prepared to destroy the old LDP that resists reform." In the deliberations of the postal reform bill in the Upper House, some LDP members rebelled and the bill was defeated. Mr. Koizumi then dissolved the Lower House high-handedly, focusing only on whether or not this bill should become law. For LDP candidates who had opposed the bill, he sent in so-called "assassin" candidates to stand against them. With these most unusual strong measures he succeeded in swaying public opinion and won a landslide victory, winning two-thirds of the Lower House seats. This "will of the people," so clearly-demonstrated, split those who had opposed the bill in the Upper House, and the postal reform bill was passed into law. Mr. Koizumi's political prestige reached its zenith, and the voices of his opponents in the party weakened and turned inward.

Mr. Abe, who had served as the Cabinet Secretary and LDP Secretary-General in the Koizumi administration, and who had been Mr. Koizumi's chosen successor, won a decisive victory in the LDP party elections in September 2006, and the Abe administration took off most smoothly.

In only a year, the Abe government achieved remarkable results in improving diplomatic relations with Asian neighbors, which had soured because of Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine. Mr. Abe also succeeded in passing the Fundamental Law of Education, the amendment to the Government Officials Act, and the promotion of the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry, all laws with strong ideological coloring dear to his heart. But repeated gaffes by cabinet ministers, unclear source and use of political funds, sloppy management of pensions, and other issues erupted one after another, and support for the Abe cabinet nose-dived.

In early 2007, Mr. Abe declared that he would make constitutional revision the focal point of the Upper House elections in the summer. In May, he railroaded the referendum bill, which stipulates the procedure for constitutional revision. The opposition parties, who were working on the understanding that that law would be decided by non-partisan agreement, reacted with fierce opposition. Thus the move towards constitutional revision, which had appeared to have started moving on a much broader foundation than before, has taken a big step backward instead, thanks to Mr. Abe's hasty management.

In the Upper House election in July, the first national election under Mr. Abe, the LDP suffered a crushing defeat and lost control of the Upper House. Mr. Abe's prestige plummeted, and the hope of constitutional revision by the Abe government was dashed.

Insisting that "My policies are supported by the people," Mr. Abe decided to continue as prime minister. But when the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries he appointed in his cabinet reshuffle was forced to resign over a political fund scandal after only a week, Mr. Abe was completely demoralized. On top of that, the very tight schedule of his overseas trips left him in very poor health. He returned to Japan, exhausted both mentally and physically, and came to announce his resignation.

This change in leadership was not only tragic for Abe the politician. It exposed the defects of Japanese politics and provided material for reflection; the real reason behind the Prime Minister's resignation was not made public, an acting prime minister was not named, and two weeks passed without an actual prime minister. Such a regrettable state of affairs could have invited question, distrust and even slight on Japan abroad.

Of the two candidates who competed to succeed Mr. Abe, Mr. Fukuda was highly critical of Mr. Abe, saying, "Mr. Abe should have stepped down when he lost the Upper House election, so he made a mistake." On the other hand, the position of Mr. Aso, who stood as a candidate to carry on the policies of the Abe government, was different. Mr. Aso had supported Mr. Abe's wish to continue as prime minister in July and was appointed LDP Secretary-General. Even after he was told of Mr. Abe's wish to resign in September, Mr. Aso had tried to stop him, saying, "This is not the time to resign." He deplored Mr. Abe's weakness, saying, "A leader must be able to bear the loneliness of the position."

During the election for LDP leadership, Mr. Aso proved popular with his brisk and lively way of speaking and his tough views appealing to people's nationalism. He got more votes than expected and consolidated his position as a post-Fukuda favorite. But Mr. Abe himself later had to apologize to the people and admit that he had "resigned at the worst possible moment." So a question remains as to whether Mr. Aso as LDP Secretary-General could not have taken more appropriate steps.

On September 9, Mr. Abe had a talk with President Bush in Sydney, where the APEC summit was being held, and said that he would do his best to extend the fueling operation by the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) in the Indian Ocean. He then explained to the Japanese people that "the extension of the special anti-terrorist law was an international pledge." In his heart Mr. Abe was already leaning towards resigning, and he seems to have thought of offering his own resignation as a condition and appeal to Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition DPJ, to keep the "international pledge."

At a time when Mr. Bush's Iraq War policy is a subject of serious debate even in the United States, and Mr. Bush himself has lost his prestige, the DPJ seems to think that a Japanese opposition party is not obliged to cooperate with that war. On the contrary, the DPJ is using its opposition to the special anti-terrorist law to leverage its policy and strategy. This seems to show that there was still a huge gap between Mr. Abe's idea and reality.

If "getting rid of the post-war regime" advocated by Mr. Abe only means constitutional revision, one could say Mr. Abe's departure has effectively put an end to this slogan. But look at Japan today, a country with a democratic constitution but without change of power between major political parties for over half a century, a country unquestioningly entrusting all of its diplomacy and security to one country if these are aspects of the post-war regime, "getting rid of the post-war regime" is a slogan which is still useful in thinking about the issues facing Japan.

The Writer is former Chief Editorial Writer for Kyodo News Agency.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

福原 亨一 / ジャーナリスト

2007年 11月 7日


















一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟