Japan’s Prime Minister Abe: Moving from one success to another
Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 20, 2007
While the media and the parrot blogs focus on the superficial instead of the substantial, misleading the public about polls while misinterpreting policy, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe keeps moving from one success to another.
And though the commentariat quickly pounced on the Abe Cabinet’s slide from an unsustainably high 70% approval rating immediately after taking office to Japan’s more usual 40% level, mum’s the word now that the Cabinet’s numbers have rebounded. That’s the media’s usual response when the beast it flogs refuses to die.
Maintaining his sang-froid, the prime minister continued the smooth implementation of his policies since taking office by putting two more feathers in his cap last week.
First, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Japan for a three-day state visit. During his stay, Wen became the first Chinese premier to deliver a speech to the Diet. Here’s some of what he said:
- “Japan formally admitted to wartime aggression and expressed deep remorse and apology, and the Chinese government and people high credit to Japan for it.”
- “China will not forget Japan’s assistance and support as the country reformed and modernized.”
- He described the two countries’ economic relationship as “mutually complementary” to a significant extent.
On the same day Wen spoke to the Diet, Japanese and Chinese companies in the energy industry signed six separate cooperation agreements. Just the day before, Wen and Abe had agreed to step up the pace of talks about a disputed region in the East China Sea that both countries claim. Centered on islands called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyutai by the Chinese, the area has significant oil and gas deposits.
This is obviously a major step forward in Sino-Japanese relations, and Mr. Abe must be given a great deal of the credit for it. When his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi was in office, the Chinese wouldn’t give the Japanese government the time of day; now the Chinese premier is addressing the Diet, acknowledging and praising Japanese apologies for the war, thanking the country for its economic assistance, and taking steps to ensure that it continues.
Some quid pro quo was likely required, and I suspect Mr. Abe will be visiting the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo this August (as he did in January) instead of Yasukuni as part of the deal. The prime minister strongly backed Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits both in his speeches and in his book and has gone there before. Therefore, he really doesn’t have to worry about his credibility with conservatives and can safely pass it up if he chooses. He also might quietly restore some of the ODA to China that Mr. Koizumi cut on the logic that with a booming economy, China doesn’t require so much Japanese money any more.
Oddly, William Pesek, writing for Bloomberg, seemed to agree that the visit was important—sort of–but started off his column this way:
Never mind it’s merely a photo op or that nothing substantive will come of it in the short run…
I’m glad Bloomberg’s paying his salary instead of me. The article then spirals downward into the usual mushy irrelevancy of conventional wisdom. It was almost as if Pesek didn’t really know what to write and slapped something together to meet a deadline. He even brings up the potential difficulties for an EU-type arrangement in East Asia, as if achieving it has been all that wonderful for Europe and would be just as wonderful for this part of the world. Pesek overlooks the fact that the European public keeps voting against it and no one in East Asia seems to be seriously interested. Perhaps he just automatically assumes a bloated bureaucracy with an economic framework that everyone ignores to suit their convenience is just the ticket.
Finally, he brings up the “poor poll numbers push patriotism” routine—the last refuge for anti-Abe journalists:
Abe’s weak approval rating may encourage him to focus greater attention on trying to clarify Japan’s war record and instill patriotism in youngsters.
Whatever that means. For starters, it’s not Abe’s rating—it’s the Cabinet’s rating. The numbers take a hit whenever a Cabinet member misbehaves, even if Abe is innocent, and several have misbehaved since they took office. Second, the Cabinet’s poll numbers are rising, as we shall see. Third, Abe clearly stated in his book that he intended to “instill patriotism” in the younger generation before he assumed office. Polls have nothing to do with it, and he’s already told confidantes that he’s not very concerned about them. And why Pesek would expect Abe of all people to try to “clarify Japan’s war record” is beyond me.
Meanwhile, just a day later, the lower house of the Diet passed a bill establishing procedures for a national referendum on amending the Constitution. This is another important first, and in fact should have been done when the Constitution was adopted 60 years ago. Changing the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote from both houses of the Diet and approval in a national referendum, but there had been no legal framework for the referendum.
The ruling coalition has a huge majority in the lower house, so the bill easily passed, despite the Japan Times’ claim that they “rammed it through”. (Had this been a left-wing measure passed by a sizeable left-wing majority, the Japan Times likely would have congratulated them for “exercising their mandate”.) The bill is expected to pass the upper house during the current session, too.
These efforts are laying the groundwork for a move to throw the Constitution’s pacifist Article 9 clause overboard. It may not be so easily lifted up to the gunwales, however, despite media apprehension; such an amendment would pass the lower house now, but not the upper house, even though some opposition DPJ members might vote for it. That’s one reason the July upper house elections will be important.
Popular sentiment is bit puzzling on this issue, too. A recent Kyodo poll 57% of the public was in favor of amending the Constitution, with 34.5% opposed. Yet 44% of the respondents didn’t think it was necessary to ditch Article 9, while 26% want to see it gone. There’s no explanation for the seemingly contradictory attitudes–changing Article 9 is the primary reason the LDP wants to amend the Constitution to begin with.
And speaking of polls, the same Kyodo poll found that support for the Abe Cabinet had risen more than 4 points in the last three months to 44.2%. In contrast, the disapproval rate for the Cabinet slid by a similar margin to 38.3%. Thus, their approval rating again exceeds their disapproval rating and is at a level the LDP finds satisfactory, if not ideal. They can keep winning elections with those numbers, especially because the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has to deal with an approval rating in the mid-20s and contest the election under the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa, Japan’s most overrated politician.
The media’s holding their collective tongues about Abe’s growing strength, however. As we’ve seen from the Pesek article, they’d rather peddle a different story. But then they seldom mentioned that the ratings for Prime Minister Koizumi’s Cabinet dropped by roughly the same amount in roughly the same period of time at the beginning of his term in office, and that his Cabinet’s disapproval rating also briefly exceeded the approval rating, too–for the first of six times during his five years in office. And heaven forbid they discuss the opposition’s weakness.
Maybe their strategy is to ignore it all and hope it goes away.