Japan from the inside out

Is the Abe administation going to crash?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 29, 2007

JAPAN FROM THE INSIDE OUT, says the subtitle on the masthead. In addition to my perspectives on the country from inside Japan, I sometimes present Japanese perspectives on their own country that ordinarily wouldn’t be available to an overseas audience.

Sunday is the day of the upper house election, which is held every three years. It is the first big test for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, and everyone expects him to fail it. All the poll numbers support this conclusion.

The August issue of Shokun! magazine carries a roundtable discussion held with three political analysts who hold forth on the record of the Abe administration. The magazine indulges in a bit of sensationalism by calling it, “The Abe Administration is Going to Crash”.

You will not find a better dissection of the current state of Japanese politics anywhere, however, and certainly not in English. The participants are fair, giving credit where credit is due, and at the same time pull no punches—some of which are devastating. To their credit, they also give the same treatment to the primary opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, and its leader, Ichiro Ozawa.

I thought the discussion was worthwhile for two reasons. First, discussions about ideology are kept to a minimum, and the subject is brought up only when necessary. (Activists are loathe to admit it, but ideology almost never wins elections. Competence does.) Second, they refrain from making too many predictions about the future. (The mass media fills up a great deal of space with speculation about the future, most of which never comes to pass.)

The participants are:

  1. Takeshige Kunimasa, formerly on the editorial staff of the Asahi Shimbun, now an author;
  2. Yasuhiro Tase, formerly on the editorial staff of the Nikkei Shimbun, now a Waseda professor; and
  3. Atsuo Itoh, formerly an official with the LDP, several splinter parties, and the DJP, and now a political analyst

What follows is a summary of a long article, rather than a translated transcription. I left a lot out, but the omissions were mostly details rather than essentials.

Itoh: The polls are looking very bad for Mr. Abe. Both Asahi and Yomiuri are showing an approval rate of 30% and a disapproval rate of 50%. Jiji Press has him below the red line with a 28.8% approval rating.

Kunimasa: This is an abnormal situation because there is usually a 10-point difference between the Asahi and Yomiuri, but not this time.
The deterioration over just nine months has been striking. The first serious problem is the Cabinet scandals, which have involved three ministers. In addition, another committed suicide over a scandal. All the scandals involved money.

The second problem is the lack of gravitas in their public statments. Both former Defense Minister Kyuma, when speaking on Iraq, and Health Minister Yanagisawa, with his comment about women being baby machines, lacked the prudence required of a Cabinet minister. The Abe Cabinet has no sense of responsibility when it comes to public statements.

Third is the deterioration of debate in democratic politics. The old LDP had internal debate between factions to achieve a balance of interests and roles. There is no debate present in the Abe Cabinet, giving it an irresponsible structure that lacks balance. There is no clear sense of how they will overcome the pension crisis (i.e., the revelation that proper records of pension payments have not been kept for millions of citizens). The situation is very dangerous for them.

Tase: The danger came to light with both the Matsuoka suicide and the pension problem. The people in charge of pensions in this administration have no ability to explain the situation. Yanagisawa can’t figure out what the opposition is going to ask next, and they don’t understand the magnitude of the problems.

Yet, viewed dispassionately, the administration has an impressive list of legislative achievements in its short time in office. Specifically, this includes the reform of the basic law on education, upgrading the defense agency to a cabinet level ministry, and creating a framework for a referendum on amending the constitution. Leaving aside my personal views on the content of the legislation itself, the results of this administration compare favorably to others in the past.

These achievements have not been reflected in the polls, however. In other words, what the Abe administration has achieved has not been what the voters were looking for. The voters don’t quite understand why this legislation was necessary now, and why constitutional reform should be the centerpiece of the upper house election campaign.

Then, when this confusion was growing, the pension problem suddenly erupted.

Past elections show that whenever the citizens’ tax burden or the pension liability becomes a campaign issue, the ruling party has been defeated.

They don’t have a handle on the pension problems, and the more measures they come up with to deal with the problems, the more they have to force these solutions through the Diet. They’re in a downward spiral in which everything they do comes out wrong.

Itoh: The administration’s legislative results should receive a passing grade, but the question is why they haven’t translated into higher poll ratings. The Koizumi Administration was one surprise after another for five and a half years. That was a powerful stimulus for the Japanese, who had lost sight of their objectives after the collapse of the bubble economy.

But fireworks festivals can’t last forever. Prime Minister Abe had a hard act to follow, but I think he is to be praised for being able to clearly enunciate the concepts of rebuilding conservative principles through the ideas of a “beautiful country” and “leaving the postwar regime behind”.

It’s undeniable that the recent conduct of the Abe administration indicates a lack of strength, and the unsteadiness of his political approach is quite evident. Though he has emphasized such “major policies” as the Constitution, education, and national security, as soon as the pension problem erupted, the focus of the upper house election shifted to the “minor policy” of pensions. When I saw this unsteadiness, I thought it was a very dangerous situation. The LDP suffered a major defeat in the 1998 upper house elections through a similar waffling on tax issues by Prime Minister Hashimoto.

Regrettably, however, I cannot say that the Democratic Party of Japan has an absolute advantage. (Laughs) My analysis is that comparing Prime Minister Abe and Chairman Ozawa resembles a contest between two losers. If the DPJ could be likened to a ship, the sails are full of holes and the engine won’t start. They’re only moving forward behind the strength of the strong wind represented by the failures of the Abe administration, so they don’t have to do anything. If the wind stops blowing, they’ll come to a standstill.

Kunimasa: Koizumi Diplomacy had a strong impact, but Abe Diplomacy has also been impressive. He made historical compromises that patched up diplomatic relations in East Asia, which had foundered, by reopening dialogue with China and South Korea. It is a praiseworthy accomplishment because he did this by suppressing his own views of history and beliefs.

Itoh: If the Koizumi Administration could be compared to cuisine, you could say that he fed the public a continuous diet of very spicy food for five and a half years. After the public’s sense of taste was blunted by this diet, along came Chef Abe who presented the refined but simpler traditional food of an old established restaurant. Though it was flavored in the traditional, orthodox way, the customers turned up their noses at it because they thought it was bland. I sympathize with him in that regard.

Tase: Abe has been much more orthodox than Koizumi and has achieved concrete results, but this was not appreciated because the people had become used to Koizumi’s stimulation.

Kunimasa: The topic of unsteadiness arose, and Prime Minister Abe did seem to be unsteady compared to Prime Minister Koizumi’s uncompromising approach.

Tase: I have a different impression. I thought Koizumi’s approach was to contest the big issues and not get involved in minor issues. If you look carefully, however, you can see that he too was unsteady in some personnel matters. He even avoided going to Yasukuni shrine on August 15, and went on the 13th instead, despite his initial declarations.

On the other hand, viewed from the same distance, Prime Minister Abe surprisingly does not seem so unsteady. It appeared that way, however, because he was surrounded by people who didn’t understand his intentions.

Itoh: But that was the close-up view. From the public’s perspective…

Tase: …He looked unsteady.

Itoh: That difference is the reason for the lack of support in the polls despite his achievements.

Kunimasa: One reason he may have seemed unsteady was due to the excessive expectations of the conservative forces. He didn’t go to Yasukuni, he apologized about the comfort women…Another reason is a lack of maturity. (Kunimasa cites some examples.)

Itoh: I have the impression that Abe couldn’t decide which type of leader he wanted to be: the honors student, or the cock of the walk. The first type is the standard type of LDP pol who balances interests, while the latter type is the Koizumi model. Abe started out as the honors student in his rapprochement with China and South Korea, but when the polls started dropping he switched toward the cock of the walk approach. Internal opposition in the LDP to that approach caused him to switch back again. When the polls stabilized, he returned to the cock of the walk model, but he comes off more as a willful boy. The lack of resolve exacerbated the poor poll numbers.

Tase: There’s no question about that. Another problem is personality. Abe actually listens to the opinions of other people, whereas Koizumi didn’t. However, Abe gives the impression that he’s agreeing with people rather than just hearing them out. there has been many instances of miscommunication, and that gives the impression of unsteadiness. Another problem is that he often seems childish, perhaps due to his privileged upbringing.

Kunimasa: Even his support groups in his home base of Yamaguchi Prefecture thought it might have been too early for Abe. Circumstances were difficult because he followed Koizumi, who had destroyed some of the power of the internal factions, but Abe wasn’t strong enough to deal with it.

Itoh: Even former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (Abe’s uncle) said that politicians shouldn’t jump at the first offer, but wait for a real opportunity.

Tase: I don’t think Abe would have gotten a second opportunity. I think he became prime minister when he suggested to Koizumi that they walk out and go home during the negotiations in Pyongyang in 2002. The strong impression he left when dealing with the abduction issue has tied our hands and left us fewer options for dealing with North Korea.

Itoh: Abe suffered from the expectations of the people that his pressure on the North Koreans would result in a resolution of the abduction issue, and the lack of results on that issue has hurt his support. The reasons for his success have now become a negative for him, and his diplomatic choices have become limited. It’s the whim of fate…

Tase: While luck and other people have let Abe down, we can’t overlook the doubts regarding Abe’s leadership qualities. Regardless of how Matsuoka’s suicide was handled, why was he in the Cabinet to begin with despite the opposition inside the party? People already knew about his scandals.

Also, the reason Abe was elected party president with close to 70% of the LDP Diet member votes is that he seemed to be Koizumi’s anointed successor. It wasn’t as if people thought in their hearts that he was the best man for the job. In a sense, they lent him their votes. When his Cabinet appointments started looking like rewards for past favors, some people started to desert him. When taken together with his somewhat immature demeanor, some began to think it was time for the next stage. Abe has more problems inside the party than he does with the DPJ.

Itoh: Part of the reason for the lack of internal dynamism in the LDP is the decline of the factions. The past factional struggles for supremacy were a source of vitality for the party, and the factions also served to educate the younger members. Since the adoption of the new electoral system, however, there has been a rapid increase in the number of candidates with high name recognition and those in show business. The required cohesive force of factions has lessened. Koizumi then administered the coup de grace with his efforts to break factional control. The election of Abe himself represents the dissolution of the factions within the party.

Kunimasa: I agree, and other reasons for the weakening of factions include the growing numbers of second- and third-generation politicians, and the trend for talented members of the bureaucracy to join the DJP.

I recently reread Abe’s book, Toward a Beautiful Country, and realized once again that his fundamental principles are sound. You can see his traditional conservative principles. Regardless of where the compass is pointing in the post Cold War period, and whether the people agree or not, there is no mistaking that it is a blueprint for a new Japan.

Though he has sound ideas, these aren’t manifested in his daily conduct of politics, and this is attributable to the decline of debate caused by weakened factions. The lack of debate led to carelessness in the administration, which is connected to the unsteadiness on the pension problem.

Tase: Another problem is the loss of vitality in the bureaucracy. Young people are not as anxious to enter the bureaucracy as before, and the Japanese system for decision-making has seriously declined. It’s also a fact that, with just a few exceptions, LDP Diet members have to rely on the votes of the Soka Gakkai (a lay Buddhist group) from their coalition partners, New Komeito. It’s no exaggeration to say that they have lost their raison d’etre as a party. For Japan to switch from factional politics to two-party politics, the DPJ must rouse itself.

Itoh: It’s been 10 years since the DPJ’s inauguration, but it has yet to formulate a clear vision for the basis of the state. If it were a party that were serious about forming a government, it would have developed basic policies for diplomacy, security, the Constitution, and macroeconomics, as well as presented a vision for the nation to the people and planned for a change in government, but…

Tase:…they don’t. Or rather, they can’t, because they’re afraid to do it.

Itoh: The views of party membership encompass an extremely wide spectrum that stretches from left to right and includes the former Socialist Party and Democratic Socialist Party. There is always a lot of uneasiness in the party about trying to come up with a basic policy.

Another problem is that they haven’t broken free of their “anti-LDP” stance and can’t seem to come up with any ideas that indicate an independent direction. Until they overcome these two problems, it will be extremely difficult for them to create a party structure capable of assuming the reins of government.

Kunimasa: Also, no matter how many openings the LDP gives them, the DPJ is unable to pin them down during debates between the party heads. In that sense, Ichiro Ozawa is increasingly looking like a leader from the past.

Itoh: I’ve characterized Ozawa’s record as one win and 13 losses, which didn’t do me any favors with his inner circle. I think this upper house election will be his last hurrah.


Itoh: During an internal party (DPJ) debate over legislation for the national flag and the national anthem, we conducted a survey to see who would quit if we supported it. The only ones who said they would walk out were some former members of the Socialist Party, whose numbers were in the single digits…Unless the party offers a clear choice, it’s going to remain weak. Some younger members were starting to call for specific changes in Ozawa’s system, but the impetus died out when the party received a boost from the LDP’s difficulties.

KUNIMASA: Ozawa’s DPJ isn’t projecting a new vision for the country, but is rather seeking a party that can win elections. That’s not something that can win over the independent voters, which have become the key. Rather, it sounds like Kakuei Tanaka’s old philosophy. Ozawa himself owns billions of yen worth of real estate, leaving himself vulnerable to LDP attacks. It’s not very convincing when he attacks the LDP cabinet over money politics.

An experienced pollster tells me that the voters don’t have high expectations for the DPJ because women don’t love them (laughs) and they can’t win without the independent vote. Yet they maintain their old-fashioned LDP-style electoral strategy.

(After a suggestion that failing to capture 45 seats in the election might doom Abe’s chances of continuing in office, as it did for former Prime Minister Hashimoto…)

Kunimasa: Who would succeed Abe? Wouldn’t it be Aso?

Tase: Questions of policy or suitability aside, the party should have a second in command ready to assume control. The LDP doesn’t have a system to provide this, however, which is a problem.

11 Responses to “Is the Abe administation going to crash?”

  1. bender said

    Hey, i’m the one only one who is commenting these couple of days. You guys come on back!

    Looks like the Democrats (of Japan) had victory this time after all.

  2. Aceface said

    Yep,and they are winning big.Wonder there will be any election within this year.It is going to be 1992 all over again.Great fun.

  3. Leslie said

    Voters might have rejected Abe in a broad sense, but this is not a conclusive defeat in the “narrow definition” of the word hehehe.

  4. Garrett Milhouse said

    I really hope to see a viable 2 party system emerge from these developments

  5. bender said

    Dual-party system?- probably not, because there has never been real split in the opinions. I think people still want the old-style LDP system where the politicians and bureaucrats funnel benefit from the central government to the rural areas and the construction jobs or the like. The democrats seem to talk about social security but it sort of sounds like the same deal- redistribution of government money for job security (which means that the old system will be maintained, and industry shifts are discouraged). No real talks about how to strengthen the backbone of the Japanese economy- because nobody wants to get hurt. The education reform seems like a joke sometimes because it takes too much time to actually see the effects and in fact, nobody is sure of what it will bring. Good way of diversion- make it look like reform while in fact you aren’t. Well, maybe I’m too harsh.

    Here in the US, although some of the issues do seem kind of trivial, there’s a real split between the people who support the two parties with some who shifts according to how the present regime manages the country. Iraq is a big issue that should be decited, but other issues I see- I don’t see why they are in any ways urgent for the country (don’t try to make me say what those are…)

  6. Aceface said

    I’m in for dual party system.The ’55 system was only sustainable with opposition like the Socialist who were only interested in ideology and not in taking power.While DPJ can and want to take over LDP.
    I think the big trend is for the dual party system.

  7. Aceface said

    As I read what all three in the post says about Ozawa Ichiro,made me remind of Ozawa years of early 90’s when he divided LDP in half and kick them out of power for the first time in the decades.
    And these commenters were ranking political editors of their papers,somehow possessed very strong anti-Ozawa sentiment.These guys are gloomed in Nagatacho kisya clubs and made them promoted being befriended with the leaders of various LDP fractions.
    And Ozawa destroyed these I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine relation between LDP and political editors,naturally for that they dislike Ozawa.

  8. bender said


    I kind of think that the dual-party system exists because there are two big un-reconciable factions in society. Is there such in Japan? I see that there are the “liberals” (Asahi and Mainichi kind of people plus some extremes like those who support the communist party) and the “conservatives” (Sankei and Yomiuri) but it seems that there’s so much in-betweens that don’t have much idea on how the country should be run…and being “liberal” and “conservative” do not seem to be linked to the issue of how to manage the country in a ever-competitive world…it seems that in this respect, it’s Nikkei Shimbun against everyone else.

  9. Aceface said

    Those liberal VS conservative debate is a phantom issue,Bender.
    It matters when we debate constitution,defence and history,but these are basically the topic for the intellectuals.

    And communist supporters,I find them very pleasant people,not particulary extreme against what people in Anglo-American political culture believes ,or certain people in ex-communist country are.My wife used be the member of the Communist youth league of Mongolia about 20 years ago and now a diehard capitalist and passionate supporter of Junichiro Koizumi(of whom I’m not.I never even voted for LDP in my life,including this election).The subscriber of Akahata(The Red Flag,the communist daily,circulation around 2 million,equals that of Sankei) are pretty much like Italian and French who supports communist party,All well educated intellectuals in the city and some union activist.

    There are huge gaps between big city dwellers and rural folks.
    Salary men who has no political groups that would represent their interest,while agricultural sectors has JA and big business has Keidanren.There are many issues that are hidden behind the consitutional debate.So I support constitutional revision,partly to normalize the political debate and partly to marginalize left vs right struggle in the media.

  10. bender said


    Well, that’s what I was trying to say- there’s no issue-split in Japan that has to do anything with how differently the country should be managed. I mean in an economical sense. Japan seems to be losing her competitiveness. How are the Japanese going to keep/enhance its economic prosperity? Article 9 of the consitution can’t be the answer. It’s important, but…

    Also, I actually don’t see a meaningful split in the opinions of city dwellers and the rural farmer/fishermen/construtcion workers. The newspapers like to talk about it, but how is it reflected in the polls? I just don’t see it. Like, do you think Japan should have more free trade? I don’t see the LDP or the Democrats talking about such issues. And the LDP seems pretty much strong in Tokyo, too. Democrats are only truly strong in Iwate and Hokkaido (I’m based on an old source, so correct me). Doesn’t seem to reflect the city/rural conflict.

  11. Aceface said

    “the LDP seems pretty much strong in Tokyo, too. Democrats are only truly strong in Iwate and Hokkaido (I’m based on an old source, so correct me). ”

    There is only one seat won in this election in Tokyo.By ex-broadcaster Marukawa Tamayo.The old guard LDP man Hosaka Sanzo lost his seat.Two seats are won by the democrat.
    In Hokkaido,LDP and DPJ each got a seat.

    You are right about “meaningful split” didn’t occur in this election,for Ozawa chose to ally with Kokumin Shinto and focus more on old school Tanaka Kakueiesque election tactics that promising rural areas more public spendings.

    I still thinks consitutional revision is importat for two reasons.
    To narrow gaps of between leading and opposition,and to adopt coming chage of shift in geopolitics.
    Mind you,I don’t believe in National competitiveness theory,if not the nation in question is the size of city state like Singapore or small country like Ireland,where FDI is crucial to their country’s economic development.Japan is neither.The real element of the competitiveness is in the corporation.

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