The country is deadlocked. The people are divided. The stockmarket is grumbling. The leader is discredited, but vows to govern on, anyhow.
If this reads like a rough portrait of the US political situation today, it’s also a good sketch of the situation in the world’s second largest economy and top-tier American ally: Japan.
Shinzo Abe with George Bush
Junichiro Koizumi, the former Prime Minister, was never going to be an easy act to follow. But perhaps his successor’s most glaring error is that he didn’t even try to follow it. The charismatic Koizumi emphasised bureaucratic shake-up, economic re-invigoration and a riverboat-gambler’s risk-taking politics. By contrast, Shinzo Abe offered the Japanese people old-style backroom politics, a Cabinet that performed like a comedy-of-errors troupe, a back-to-basics patriotism that sent chills down the spine of that half of Japan that’s deeply pacifist, and a vague if not goofy vision of a ‘beautiful Japan’ that left almost everyone scratching their heads.
The election result from the furious weekend voting for vacancies in the Japanese Upper House was, accordingly, a disaster for Abe. For the first time since his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was established in 1955, another Party has won a majority of seats in an election.
Abe, 53, insists he’ll remain Prime Minister and President of the LDP, and indeed his fate is not decided by Upper House elections but by the Lower House, or Diet, which the LDP still controls. But other Japanese prime ministers have had to resign over far less catastrophic Upper-House election rebuffs.
To be sure, everyone will read what they want into the weekend’s drama. Enemies of the long-ruling LDP will see the negative landslide against the Government as conclusive proof that their near-monopoly on power is coming to an end.
Certainly this is the view and the hope of the resurgent rival Democratic Party of Japan, now controlling the Upper House. And this is also the view and hope of proponents of a more vigorous two-Party system in Japan.
On the economic front, observers will note that while Koizumi did help get the economy moving again, it is still not exactly on fire, and its healing warmth is not being deeply felt in Japan’s widespread rural constituencies. If Abe had positioned himself more like an Economic Koizumi the Second, he might not now be fighting for his political life.
Others will draw the conclusion that the Japanese people are not ready for a fundamental change in the country’s military posture, as Abe and other ardent nationalists want. This interpretation undoubtedly merits further scrutiny. Almost mystically, Abe has been pushing for a grand rethink about the country’s military doctrine even though the issue does not appear to be at the top of the public’s priorities. And, of course, his LDP supports the Iraq War and even sent a token force to Iraq, notwithstanding the opposition of the Japanese people.
The rise of China is the obvious reason for pressing the military-preparedness button. And every nation has the right to defend itself. But having lost a colossal war, the Japanese people appear to have been blessed with a profound insight: that in the current age not only is military power not everything, sometimes it’s not worth much at all.
Nobody doubts that a fully re-armed and forward-looking Japan benefiting from the best technological engineering in the world would be a formidable force. No one doubts that Japan could whip together a handful of nuclear bombs as readily and merrily as a perfectly made Honda or Toyota rolls down an assembly line.
But the Japanese people, as a whole, seem to have little appetite for going down that route again. The wise Japanese people know that you can be the greatest military power on earth and still be brought to your knees by a much lesser foe due to your own miscalculation, over-extension and hubris.
They see what has happened to their American allies in Iraq, and they know that they don’t want that; they remember what happened to them in World War II and they certainly don’t want that again.
It is noteworthy that Abe’s Defence Minister, Fumio Kyuma, was forced to resign in the firestorm he set off by apparently suggesting that the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. The Japanese people wanted to hear none of that.
And there were many other reasons for Abe’s electoral humiliation: financial corruption in his Cabinet, a huge scandal over the public pensions accounting, and so on. No single factor tells the whole story. But underneath the swirl is the sense that the Japanese people know they have achieved a lot by not being like other nations, by not going the route of military buildup, and thus by not in a perverse sense being quite the ‘normal’ nation. Maybe they felt they were on to something and weren’t quite ready to give it up. If so, good for them.
Whatever lessons Shinzo Abe takes away from the weekend’s humiliation, there are also some good ones there for George W Bush if he bothers to take note.
This is an edited version of a piece published on Asia Media on 30 July.
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