Navigating the post-Abe era


Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated while addressing an election rally in Nara in western Japan on July 8, was not only a former prime minister — the longest-serving — of Japan, but also one of the most powerful and influential figures in Japanese politics.

Abe’s assassination had a direct impact on the parliamentary election on July 10, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, the Komeito, winning big, although even before he was shot, opinion polls showed the ruling coalition in the lead.

In all, the coalition secured 76 seats, retaining its majority in the 248-member upper house of parliament, with the LDP winning 63 of the 125 seats up for grabs, helping Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to consolidate his position. The coalition now has 146 seats in the upper house.

The election result also means political forces supporting an amendment to Japan’s pacifist Constitution retain their majority in the upper house. Still, the Constitution can be amended only through a national referendum.

Abe’s assassination will change the LDP structure, however, because his death leaves his Seiwa-kai group, the largest faction in the party, leaderless. As Abe failed to groom a successor powerful enough to lead the group and become the new face of his conservative right-wing policies, there could be competition among the hard-core conservatives to become Abe’s rightful heir. That could affect Kishida’s governance, as the right-wing forces in the LDP might force Kishida to adopt more right-wing policies.

Although the LDP’s victory in the election gives Kishida a chance to attempt a constitutional revision, that is not what the majority of Japanese people want. According to polls conducted before the election, about 40 percent of the respondents said they were most concerned about the economy, with the second and third largest groups saying their biggest worries were social insurance and diplomatic security respectively. Only about 5 percent said constitutional revision should be on the government’s top agenda.

The LDP introduced neoliberal policies and “Abenomics” to boost the economy, but instead of improving Japanese people’s livelihoods, they have widened the rich-poor gap, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides, the Japanese yen has weakened since the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, and the country’s consumer price index in April rose 2.1 percent year-on-year. Though many might see this as the realization of the main aim of “Abenomics” — increasing demand and raising inflation to 2 percent — the inflation is driven by supply-side problems caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the pandemic, not by an increase in demand that low interest rates are intended to produce.

Given these facts, the top priority for the Kishida government should be boosting the economy. But it is difficult for the government and the central bank to adopt traditional fiscal policies to address the causes of the yen’s slide and rising prices. Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio has been above 250 percent. And higher interest rates, despite having the potential to stabilize the exchange rate, could further increase the debt. That might be one of the reasons why Kishida cannot translate his “new form of capitalism” into concrete policies.

However, as a dovish leader, Kishida could more easily accomplish the LDP’s goal of revising the Constitution than a hawkish leader like Abe, even though Kishida’s immediate challenge is to boost the economy, not intensify efforts for constitutional revision. Indeed, there is the example of a dovish prime minister (Kiichi Miyazawa) passing a law in 1992 which allowed Japanese defense forces to go on peacekeeping missions overseas — for the first time since World War II.

Yet constitutional revision is a highly sensitive political issue in Japan. Even the possibility of the government passing such a bill or calling for a referendum on the issue could create social divisions and trigger political confrontation. Hence Kishida may not be in a hurry to push forward the constitutional revision plan. Instead, he may adopt other measures to assuage the right-wing forces in the ruling party.

In fact, he has already said the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines and the Medium-Term Defense Program will be revised by the end of 2022 to give Japan the right to strike enemy bases in case of an imminent attack on the country. He has also vowed to increase the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP, similar to NATO members.

However, in the course of time, Kishida will realize the importance of Sino-Japanese cooperation because Japan’s economy will rely more on foreign markets and demand due to the government’s inability to stimulate domestic consumption. For example, the world’s third-largest economy grew 1.7 percent in 2021, with external demand accounting for 1 percent of that growth.

As this year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan diplomatic ties, it is hoped the Kishida government will use the occasion to improve relations and deepen cooperation between the two countries.

The author is director-general of the Institute of Japanese Studies, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.