Post-Abe Japan
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2020 - 12:00am

The resignation of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to have come as a shock to most people, including the Japanese public. He served in his position for eight years, the longest term for any Japanese prime minister. In Japan’s faction-riddled politics, the average for any prime minister was two to three years.

Abe was good for the Philippines. During his term, several major projects were signed and agreed between the two countries. The largest was the multibillion-dollar Metro Manila subway project. So far, Japan has been a bigger source of overseas development aid than China.

During his term, Abe exercised more power than any other prime minister. His economic plan called “Abenomics” was intended to reshape the economy. He also campaigned vigorously to revise the country’s pacifist constitution to give its armed forces a legal underpinning to become less defense-oriented and more open to expanding its influence abroad. Many countries, especially in Southeast Asia, welcomed these moves because it would lead to a new balance of power between China and Japan and its allies. Japan was the leading force in the “Quad” Alliance of four countries – USA, Japan, India, Australia – to counter China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Asia-Pacific region.

Abenomics was actually beginning to resuscitate the economy until the COVID-19 pandemic came. But Abe had already made some reforms in the economy which will benefit them in the coming years. He  agreed to slash tariffs and increase import quotas for agricultural products in spite of the fact that Japanese farmers have long been coddled because of politics. Japanese women started entering the workforce  due to free nursery schools and other subsidies for child care. There are now more than twice as many foreign workers in Japan as there were when Abe took office. This was a major cultural development because the Japanese had a national phobia about immigration. However, this was a necessary move because Japan’s population was not only aging, it was actually decreasing.

The stock market has more than doubled since the beginning of Abe’s term. There were some errors especially the decision to raise sales tax twice.

In foreign affairs, Abe has increased defense spending and pushed through legal changes that allowed Japan to take part in joint defense pacts and peacekeeping missions. This has made Japan a more credible force on the world stage and to have a greater say on international affairs.

An article in the Economist says: “Although Mr. Abe leaves  lots of unfinished business, he also leaves his successor the tools to complete the job. Perhaps his most important and least recognized achievement is to have made Japan more  governable.” He was able to quell the factional political struggle with the LDP. He also brought the bureaucracy more firmly under the control of the elected leaders.

Regarding the succession process, the election of the new prime minister is scheduled for Sept. 15. There are two options being considered – a standard vote in which regional LDP party officials are allowed to participate, or a limited vote in which only sitting LDP lawmakers decide. The latter option is being considered because of COVID-19 precautions.

Statfor, a think tank, has this analysis of the different alternatives:

• If limited to lawmakers, whoever Abe appoints as his successor will enjoy a major advantage given the prime minister’s clout. A limited election would see Cabinet Secretary Yoshida Suga hold a strong position due to his entrenched role in Abe’s administration and in national level politics. Abe hasn’t guaranteed to choose Suga, however, as their relationship has soured over the past year.

•  An election open to the broader LDP nationwide would favor former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, both more popular with the general rank and file than lawmakers. Ishiba has been a critic of “Abenomics,” levelling blame on Abe’s economic policies for failing to benefit rural areas and instead benefiting major exporters with cheap yen and monetary easing. Kishida has also called for higher public works spending and an end to ultra-low interest rates that have hurt regional banks.

•  None of the major contenders for the post are likely to place a strong emphasis on forwarding constitutional reforms to eliminate the pacifist provision that has partly held Japan back from using the military as a foreign policy tool. The popularity of this position among LDP grass roots means that if the vote is extended to the broader party, several candidates might rise to capture this, including Katunobu Kato, Toshimitsu Motegei and Tonomi Inada, among others. Regardless, Japan is already adapting its military in spite of the constitutional limits in order to more fully adapt to China’s military rise.

• Japan’s young environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, is another contender, garnering support from 8.4 percent of respondents in a Kyodo News poll, but he lacks overall backing from within the LDP leadership. Defense minister Taro Kono also holds a strong position among ruling party factions, but has a maverick approach to leadership that has given many lawmakers pause.

Abe’s successor will have to first focus on digging Japan out of its COVID-19 related economic situation. However, geopolitical factors have made Japan a critical factor in maintaining a balance of power with China in the Indo Pacific region. The new prime minister will have to assert himself in international affairs almost immediately.

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An Invitation for Young Writers, ages 8-15:

Young Writers’ Hangout is on Zoom on Sept. 12 & 26, 2-3 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com or 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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