Abe will not revive Japan by rewriting history

THE headlines shout that Japan is back. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has returned the country to centre stage after more than a decade in the wings. This week's turbulence aside, the stock market has boomed, consumers have been spending and growth looks like picking up. Abroad, Japan is commanding attention. There are three things to say about this reversal: two are mostly positive and the third seriously negative.

When Prime Minister Abe tips up at next month's meeting of the Group of Eight advanced industrial nations, it is a fair bet his fellow summiteers will want to get to know him. The same could not have been said of his recent predecessors.

The Prime Minister's Office has had a fast revolving door. Between 2006 and Mr Abe's election victory in 2012, there were as many occupants as years. Other world leaders would shake hands with their Japanese counterpart in the near certain knowledge that he would be gone before their next big gathering. America's Barack Obama was said to be especially irritated by the time wasted in these fleeting encounters.

Mr Abe, of course, was one of those who passed through the revolving door - presiding over a failed administration between 2006 and 2007. His political prospects now, however, are better than any since Mr Junichiro Koizumi's premiership in the opening years of the century.

Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) faces elections to the Upper House in July, but if the polls are any guide it is heading for a comfortable majority. Barring any accidents, that would leave Mr Abe with a clear run until the next poll for the Lower House in 2017.

The simple fact of having a prime minister likely to be around for some time promises Japan a presence in global affairs that has been sorely missing. Its return coincides with the tense recasting of relationships in East Asia spurred by an assertive China. If Mr Abe has a single message, it is that economic strength at home is vital to defend Japan's interests abroad.

He intends to spend his political capital. In defiance of his party he wants Japan to join US-led trade talks to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The effort could yet falter in the face of the LDP's fierce attachment to agricultural protectionism, but Mr Abe has understood that trade deals are as much about geopolitics as economics. He is the first Japanese leader in a long time to elevate strategic interest above domestic infighting.

His boldest step has been in the realm of domestic economics - the second of my two positives. Starting with a big fiscal stimulus and a leadership coup at the Bank of Japan (BOJ), Mr Abe has launched a three-pronged plan to lift the country out of stagnation. If an unprecedented monetary boost, more government spending and promised structural reforms do not breathe life into the world's third-largest economy, then nothing will.

There are plenty of risks.

Thursday's stock market slide showed that Abenomics is not immune to changing market sentiment. There is deep disquiet among Japan's neighbours about the tumbling yen. There is a fine line between justified action to kick-start the domestic economy and beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation. These days, central bankers operate in unmapped territory, but BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda is out on his own.

After two lost decades, something had to be done to break the pattern of stagnation. There is a decent chance that a return of consumer confidence and spending will be followed by an upswing in exports and investment. Somewhere out there, there may even be a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one in which Japan has been trapped.

Mr Abe, though, is about more than economics. His energy comes from a deeper determination to restore Japan as a player - and, more particularly, a power to be reckoned with in its own neighbourhood. This Japanese leader does not intend to be pushed around by China - and nor, for that matter, by its vital ally the United States. Mr Abe has increased defence spending and intends to revise the Constitution to create a military capable of participating in collective defence.

Here we get to the big negative. The Prime Minister's appeal to patriotism and national spirit is tinged with a dangerous historical revisionism. He has obfuscated when asked about Japan's atrocities in Korea and China during the first half of the last century; his senior ministers pay their respects at the Yasukuni shrine, which holds the remains of a dozen Class A war criminals; question marks have been put over Japan's culpability for the wartime enslavement of Korean women as prostitutes for the occupying soldiers.

All in all, the mood music has been of a Japan that has tired of apologising.

The immediate effect has been to derail relations with South Korea, alarm the US and offer ammunition to China when it claims that regional tensions are being stoked by Japanese nationalism rather than Chinese expansionism. Amid a maritime stand-off in the East China Sea, Washington fears that Mr Abe is treating the US-Japan security treaty as a shield from behind which Tokyo can poke Beijing in the eye.

Japan has reason to be frustrated. Chinese incursions have raised the temperature in the territorial dispute over the Japanese-administered Senkaku (known in China as Diaoyu) islands. The answer, though, is not the return of unabashed Japanese nationalism.

Mr Abe is fanning the glowing embers of old rivalries and hatreds across East Asia. If he wants to restore Japan's strength, the way to do it is by reviving the economy. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by the attempt to rewrite the past.

FINANCIAL TIMES