Speaking Of Asia

Japan, and the tried and trusted

Shinzo Abe looks set for another term as PM but he has been pushed further right by the rise of a rival with outsider allure

Now that Ms Yuriko Koike, Tokyo's Governor, has said she is "100 per cent certain" that she is not going to run in the Japanese national election scheduled for Oct 22, the media frenzy aroused by her potential candidacy will probably slide a little.

The rest of us who need to keep an eye on events in that silent military power and Asia's No. 2 economy can relax a little from knowing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is all but certain to get another term in office, although the scale of his success is not likely to match that of the last election, which he steamrolled with a two-thirds majority.

In many ways, the call for fresh polls - we are staring at the second time Mr Abe hit the reset button after taking charge in 2012 - was seen as a self-serving move by Mr Abe and that sort of thing doesn't go down too well, especially in Asian democracies where sacrifice is lauded and ambition frowned upon.

Ms Koike's insistence that anyone moving to her flock must unquestioningly pledge to endorse revision to Japan's pacifist Constitution, the exercise of the right to collective self-defence, or militarily aiding allies in whatever circumstances, is a bit premature for a nation that still needs to debate these changes in a fuller way, even if they may be inevitable in the march of history.

Like her a protege of elder statesman Junichiro Koizumi, who so riled China with his repeat visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Mr Abe may be boring and the Japanese may be wearying of him. But he is at least broadly predictable and in these challenging times it may be better, as the saying goes, to stick with the devil you know rather than the one you do not.

Mr Nicholas Smith, a strategist at investment group CLSA who has lived in Japan for 30 years, was on target when he said in a CNBC interview this week that this is a battle between a rightist Mr Abe and an extreme rightist movement, represented by Ms Koike.

"I think that the Western media has pictured her as if, because she's a woman, she must be in some way liberal. Well, she's not," he said, also pointing out that there are people on her side who have even backed a film-maker who portrays the Nanjing Massacre as never having happened.


Ms Koike has not concealed her ambition to lead Japan and her time may come, even if she is older than Mr Abe by a couple of years. Mr Abe's grip on the Liberal Democratic Party or LDP comes up for a test next September and should he fare poorly this month, he could be shaky thereafter. Credit her then for pulling out her personal candidature early in the day. This shows that in addition to opportunism she has a realist side, and that should augur well for her political future.


While the launch of her new Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, did generate a frisson, it did not look likely that she could sustain the early momentum she seemed to have gathered. Despite the reduced approval ratings for Mr Abe, the ruling LDP was way ahead in polls and it would have been too much to expect that the 40 per cent or so of the vote that was classified as undecided would tilt overwhelmingly towards her.

The Japanese are fully aware that their most recent move to hand power to a non-LDP government turned out to be a disaster. Indeed, this helped Mr Abe make an unexpected comeback in 2012.

This time the anti-LDP vote had been further fragmented by the refusal of the left wing of the Democratic Party to endorse Ms Koike, and its decision to set up a new Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

What is more, the launch of Party of Hope had caused an estrangement with Komeito, a party that is closest to the Soka Gakkai, the biggest Buddhist group in a nation where many Japanese consider their life journey to be "born in Shinto and die in Buddhism".

While Komeito was in coalition with Ms Koike in the Tokyo assembly, it is sticking to its national alliance with Mr Abe's LDP. This is significant because, while Komeito's Parliament numbers may be small, it reflects the middle ground of Japan in some measure. However, this effectively also ruled out Ms Koike's chance to weld a national coalition, even if she had managed high scores in the national poll.

Still, this is Japan and anything that departs from its staid and stodgy ways is always a matter of excitement, like Mr Koizumi's long and wavy hairstyle that gave him a rock star allure. It is no coincidence that both Mr Abe and Ms Koike are proteges of that master.

Most Japanese seem confused by the whiplash they are being subjected to, especially with the rapid changes in opposition politics. Some say they will wait and see the line-up of candidates - Kibo no To on Tuesday unveiled its first slate of 192 who will run in single-seat electoral districts in the 465-seat Diet - before deciding which way they will ballot. A majority of candidates on the first slate were from the former Democratic Party which has yoked itself to Ms Koike.

Earlier, she had said she would field at least 233 candidates but that number may possibly rise.

While the LDP looks set to prevail, and worry over the prevailing tensions in the Korean peninsula has put enough wind in its sails to do that handsomely, the sentiments captured by the Kibo no To cannot be easily dismissed, because they are real. Ms Koike's portrait of an outsider - one that speaks of decentralising power, raising female empowerment and eliminating nuclear power - does appeal to large swathes of Japan.

Besides, as the daughter of an oil trader from Kobe, she isn't a political blue blood in the manner of the Abes, Koizumis or Hatoyamas, helping her gain an outsider's allure even though she was a veteran LDP figure until her resignation from the party some months ago.

Mr Koizumi, considered a reformer, was the son of a former defence minister and grandson of a Speaker of Parliament. Mr Abe's maternal grandfather, Mr Nobosuke Kishi, was prime minister and his own father was foreign minister. Mr Yukio Hatoyama, the first prime minister from the centrist Democratic Party who ruled from September 2009 to June 2010, also is the grandson of a former prime minister.

It will not hurt Japan to look beyond the old-boy herd steeped in the country's particular brand of patronage and obligations exchanged, and the Japanese know it. Ms Koike was tapping into that vein when she dramatically asked at a press conference last week: "Can we continue letting the establishment handle politics?"


She has a point. As the third longest-serving prime minister of Japan, Mr Abe may have brought a measure of stability to the nation's politics and direction in the wake of the drift of the Democratic Party years. He has carefully nursed the all-important US alliance and artfully managed to keep even the impossible President Donald Trump onside.

That said, even as his "Abenomics" policy of reflating the economy has recently shown signs of success, Japan isn't performing too well on a host of measures. The structural reforms promised as the third arrow of Abenomics have not materialised and even the most profitable companies continue to hoard cash and are conservative about raising wages, something badly needed to stoke consumption.

Viewed from outside, the country has slid on the global competitiveness scale to take its place behind Britain. While the security legislation Mr Abe has passed could be accepted as being benchmarked against similar laws elsewhere, many consider his secrets law, which took effect in December 2014, to be too draconian.

The law also contributed to a significant slide in Japan's standing in press freedom indexes.This year, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression spoke in the United Nations Human Rights Council of "significant worrying signals" coming from Japan.

The election manifesto unveiled this time by Mr Abe contains few game-changing ideas and is noteworthy for specifically mentioning Constitution revision as an election promise. That is an indication of how even the revisionist Mr Abe is being pushed further right by Ms Koike.

Forcing the pace on that front is not something that Japan, which lately has been trying to mend fences with China, should find desirable at this moment, even if the fence-mending is more tactical than strategic. Indeed, it cannot afford to.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2017, with the headline 'Japan, and the tried and trusted'. Print Edition | Subscribe