Q&A with Former Ambassador to Japan – Dr. Lars Vargö: Japan After Abe

With the resignation of Abe Shinzô coming as somewhat of a surprise to most, we speak to our Distinguished Fellow Dr. Lars Vargö to seek an understanding of Abe’s legacy and who could take up the role of Japan’s next prime minister.

What was the reason behind Prime Minister Abe Shinzô’s resignation?

His resignation can be simply put down to health-related reasons. Had Abe been able to continue in good health there was no indication of a need to step down, at least until the next scheduled election for the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in one year’s time. No one in his party had really urged him to resign for political reasons, but of course now that he has made his announcement there are quite a few who would like to replace him.

Mr. Abe Shinzô has been the longest serving prime minister in Japan since the first modern cabinet was launched in 1885. How should one assess this achievement?

First of all, it is indeed an achievement. Japan has had 65 prime ministers since 1885 and 34 since the end of the Second World War. That translates into an average of roughly two years in office. Mr. Abe has managed to keep his post more than eight years, including his first brief period through 2006-2007.

Although unusual in Japan, eight years is not extraordinary timeframe when seen from an international context. I believe the main reason there has been so many changes of the leadership position in Japan is due to the constant infighting between different factions within the ruling party. Ever since its formation in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party has managed to stay together by letting the factions take turns in forming the government. The factions are to a certain extent based on political differences, but there are also other factors behind this, such as regional loyalties and strong political families. In 1979 then prime minister Ôhira Masayoshi led an effort to abolish the factions, since they were blamed for political instability, but this had the only visible effect that the Kokkai binran, a catalogue over the incumbent members of parliament, changed the information of their factional affiliations to those of  – “former” so-and-so faction.

Abe’s strength has been in his ability to represent a little bit of everything of the national political spectrum. He has been skillful in keeping a profile as the party’s most common denominator. While described as both a nationalist and a historical revisionist when taking office, he has stayed away from provoking adversaries both nationally and internationally. He once made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine at the beginning of his term, but this was most likely part of a strategy of wishing to calm the extremists within his own party before moving on to a policy of appeasing international critics. Although historical issues have been brought up continuously by Japan’s neighbors, Abe has managed to dampen most of the flames by urging them to work together for a constructive future.

Prime minister Abe began his latest tenure by launching what has become known as “Abenomics”, an economic policy which was built on the three “arrows” of quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms. Has this policy been successful?

There were a lot of expectations that finally something would happen that could lead the Japanese economy out of its difficulties. Although there have been some signs that the economy has returned to a growth pattern, a substantial change has never been realized and the national debt still remains a major issue. Partly this has been down to international developments, not least the ongoing pandemic, but this has also been caused by deep inertia issues within Japanese society.

“Womenomics” was an important part of “Abenomics” and policies which would make it easier for women to be active on the labor market were adopted, but traditional family structures and a lack of day-care facilities, in combination with less welcoming attitudes in many workplaces have been impediments. The government has certainly had many well-intended ambitions, such as making it possible for men to take a long period of parental leave, but not many young fathers have had the courage to apply for it, possibly because their employers would not approve. The Abe government has also raised the consumption tax twice, 2014 and 2019, but although the measures have been necessary from a fiscal standpoint, they have not been well-timed.

Mr. Abe has not only been the longest serving prime minister, he has also the most well-traveled, being very active on the international diplomatic scene. What has he hoped to achieve through this?

This is another frustrating thing that has haunted Japanese governments over the years. Parliamentary approval has been necessary for cabinet ministers to travel abroad. This, in combination with the requirement to constantly answer questions in Parliament, has made it more or less impossible to pursue an active diplomacy in the form of working visits to other world leaders. Prime minister Abe has managed to pass this hurdle more than his predecessors and has raised both his and Japan’s profile internationally. On the other hand, this is only remarkable from a Japanese perspective. World leaders are normally required to travel a lot and Abe has simply attempted to reach a level expected of a global leader.

Many have wondered about Abe’s relationship with the U.S. president and what will happen to U.S.-Japan relations if Trump is reelected

President Trump has several times signaled that he is not happy with Japan’s level of economic support for the U.S.-Japan alliance and has also implicitly threatened to do something about, meaning either forcing Japan to pay more, in some way or another, or withdrawing forces from Japanese soil. It would appear as though Abe has managed to convince Trump that Japan’s contributions are in fact very high and that the U.S. bases in Japan are not only there for the defense of Japan, but are also there in the event a war breaks out again on the Korean Peninsula.

In fact, the presence of U.S. bases in Japan are absolutely essential if Washington wishes to counter what it perceives as a growing regional threat from China. The alternative to this reality would be a significantly strengthened Japanese military capacity, which could in turn cause further tensions in the region and therefore not be in the U.S. interest. A stronger Japan as such, would not necessarily be a drawback from an American perspective, but a more capable Japan in combination with a stronger China and stronger Korean states, coupled with a weaker American capacity in the region, would be a different matter. I would believe it is safe to say that prime minister Abe has been successful in convincing the American president of this case. There is no reason to believe that Abe’s successor would prefer a different approach, although another term for President Trump might require some more forceful arguments to be made.

What about Abe’s contribution to shaping international trade?

A big disappointment for Abe was the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and an even greater disappointment was the U.S. decision to impose new tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum. On top of that, the trade war between the U.S. and China has been significantly detrimental to the Japanese economy. However, despite all of this Abe has somehow managed to keep Japan out of the focus of American ire. He has also been instrumental in enabling Japan to take the lead in moving the TPP forward as well as encouraging the other eleven TPP members to sign a replacement, the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) in 2018. Under Abe’s watch, Japan has also signed a giant trade and strategic partnership agreement with the EU, which is a major achievement in terms of strengthening its position on the global stage.

Who will most likely replace Abe as prime minister?

For the moment there are probably four contenders; Minister of Defense and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kôno Tarô; former Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs, Kishida Fumio; Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide; and former Minister of Defense, Ishiba Shigeru. It is difficult to rank their possibilities, and none of them can be counted out. However, although it seems that Suga is ahead at the moment it is doubtful that any of them will be able to stay in power as long as Abe.