Shinzo Abe: Between Yasukuni and a Hard Place

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is looking shaky, to say the least. Although initially riding strong on his policy of rapprochement with China last Fall, the Abe administration has been hit by a number of scandals since December. Abe’s popularity has plummeted to 28% (July ‘07) from a high of 60% (Sept ‘06).



By John Hemmings


Domestic Worries


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is looking shaky, to say the least. Although initially riding strong on his policy of rapprochement with China last Fall, the Abe administration has been hit by a number of scandals since December. Abe’s popularity has plummeted to 28% (July ‘07) from a high of 60% (Sept ‘06). The most damaging scandal has been the government loss of pension records, meaning that some 50 million people may lose out on their pensions. Although this scandal pre-dates Abe’s administration, his government has been criticized in the domestic press for not handling the affair well. Indeed, Abe’s cabinet has been weakened by a wave of scandals that have erupted one after the other. In January, Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa called women "birthing machines" in a speech about Japan's plummeting birth rate. The comments caused outrage amongst women's groups in Japan as well as abroad. Then Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma was forced to resign over an ill-thought-out remark in a speech on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying that the bombing brought about an earlier conclusion to the war. That fact that Kyuma also represents the city of Nagasaki only added irony to the situation. Finally, the government has been riding a storm within the agriculture department. Abe’s initial appointment to the post, Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka killed himself this May after being accused of financial impropriety, and now Toshikatsu’s replacement Norihiko Agaki is on equally precarious ground. He has been accused by the Japanese media of claiming millions of yen in expenses for an office that has never been used. Last month, Prime Minister Abe succeeded in passing legislation  extending the Upper House Elections from July 20th to July 29th. This was in the face of strong opposition from Abe's own party, meaning that the LDP leader is facing a potential split from within the ranks of his party. The real danger now is that Abe might attempt to appease the nationalist grassroots within the LDP by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. August 15th is the anniversary of Japan's surrender during Second World War, so a visit before the election would have significance for Japan's right.


Foreign Policy: Between a Rock...


The fact that Abe's domestic troubles might cause him to visit Yasukuni is more worrisome than it appears. Abe came to office with a commitment to repair Japan's relations with its neighbours, particularly China, and so far he has done well in achieving this. Those ties suffered terribly under Prime Minister Koizumi due to sensitivities over visits to Yasukuni, which includes eleven War Criminals. A visit to the shrine before the elections would be good for Abe's domestic position but terrible for his foreign policy platform. At this stage, it is unclear which way he will jump. In other areas, Abe's foreign policy has had mixed results. Maintaining its strong relationship with the US, Japan has also begun to build links with NATO and the EU. In dealing with North Korea, unfortunately Abe's commitment to solving the abduction issue over all else has meant that diplomacy with the Hermit Kingdom has come to a standstill. In fact relations are worse between the two countries than during the Cold War. Abe first came to Japanese national attention during the Koizumi government when he took an understandably hard line on the issue while visiting Pyongyang. He handled this year’s October crisis well, taking North Korea’s nuclear test to the United Nations, but since then he has been unable to build on that success. Furthermore, while the 6-Party Talks have begun to solve North Korea’s nuclear situation, Japan has cut off all talks with Pyongyang until the Abductees’ issue is satisfactorily resolved. While this is a reasonable emotional response to that huge transgression on Japan’s sovereignty and citizen’s rights, it is actually a diplomatic dead-end and works against the complete stabilisation of the region. As one Japanese journalist put it “It’s as if Japan put a few of its citizens over the issue of nuclear disarmament.” There has been growing criticism within Japan that Abe's policies regarding North Korea have effectively isolated Japan from the US and ROK.


New Directions


In addition to growing links with NATO, Abe has also pushed for a more assertive foreign policy based on values. This value-based diplomacy and forging of strong links with other democratic states from the Pacific to the English Channel has been called the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” and is part of Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s policy to make Japan a bigger player on the international scene, while also enabling Japan to develop stronger defence links. While building friendlier relations with China, Abe has also worked hard to further “normalise” Japan’s military capabilities, including closer security ties with Australia, complementing its alliance with the US. Some Asian newspapers have accused Japan prompting an arms race, but if one considers the exponentially increasing military budget of China’s People’s Liberation Army over the last decade (an increase by 10% every year), and its naval build-up, then Japan’s efforts can be seen in more perspective. It is not so much that Japan is starting an arms race, but that China is already running full-speed in one, and in order for stability in the region to be maintained, Japan must keep up. Allegations of re-emerging Japanese militarism are misplaced and counter-productive. The Japan of today does not resemble the Japan of the 1930’s, and it should not be continually emasculated every time it behaves as its neighbours do. On the one hand, it would be more dangerous for the region if a security vacuum was to develop, and on the other, it is high time that Japan took on the roles and responsibilities of a stake-holder in the region. The question on everyone's mind now is will Abe’s government survive long enough to implement this strategy.





John Hemmings is a Research Associate in the Asian Programme in the Security Studies Department at RUSI. He lived in Japan for 6 years and is currently writing on the Japanese-US Security alliance.



These views are those of the author and do not represent the official views of the Institution.




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