Shinzō Abe and the Future of Japanese Democracy

Shinzō Abe and the Future of Japanese Democracy

Under Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party waged a right-wing culture war and changed the terms of Japanese politics. The opposition will need to learn from his success to coalesce around a popular alternative.

Shinzō Abe announcing his resignation on August 28, 2020 (Franck Robichon - Pool/Getty Images)

Citing chronic health issues, Shinzō Abe stepped down as the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history last September. In November 2019 he surpassed his closest competitor for most days in office, Prince Tarō Katsura, a general in the Imperial Army in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. After presiding over Japan’s victory in the war against Russia, Katsura and fellow oligarch Kinmochi Saionji alternated hold over the prime minister’s office between 1901 and 1913. This era has long been portrayed as a hopeful dress rehearsal for a future defined by civilized competition between two parties. It came to an end amid a growing movement for democracy that culminated in the attainment of universal male suffrage.

Abe broke the record for the prime minister with the most consecutive days in office as well. He eclipsed the seven-and-a-half-year term of his great-uncle Eisaku Satō just a few weeks before he resigned. Satō’s stint as prime minister, from 1964 to 1972, was part of a four-decade sequence of postwar governments all headed by members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Satō contended with impassioned protest against his support for the United States during the Vietnam War. Abe held onto power during a period that seemed even less stable economically and geopolitically, not least due to the election of Donald Trump.

With few exceptions, the American media greeted Abe’s resignation with praise for his time in office. While Abe was leader of the conservative LDP, retrospective accounts of his tenure as prime minister treated him as the antithesis of Trump: a strong leader who championed the right economic policies, supported international institutions against populist rabble-rousers, and brought relative stability to a polarized nation. Even his effort to cultivate close ties with the American president could be made to seem un-Trumpian. Wasn’t this proof of Abe’s willingness to put Japan’s national interest above personal pride?

Abe’s domestic critics, by contrast, argue he has left a dubious legacy for Japanese democracy. His administration undermined checks on cabinet power, flaunted expectations of accountability and transparency, and contributed to the normalization of right-wing nationalism. To them, Abe’s disdain for his opposition in the Diet (the Japanese legislature), media, and civil service exceeded the bounds of normal political competition, veering into declarations against enemies of the people. He may not have been as flashy and brazen as the American president, but his greater competence as a political leader enabled him to cause even more damage to the left.

For all this, Abe proved quite vulnerable to criticism and depended heavily on the results of opinion polls. When disapproval of Abe’s more controversial policies or abuses of power led to sagging approval ratings, he quickly changed course, unveiling a new package of economic reforms or threatening to call a snap election. To some observers, Abe’s “pragmatic pivoting” is itself his positive legacy. He bequeathed to his successors a model for effectively manipulating the levers of government in order to stay in power. An opposition willing to learn from Abe’s example will be better able to avoid the mistakes of the center-left government that preceded his, led by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which rotated through three prime ministers over the course of three years. Abe’s second stint as prime minister lasted nearly eight years, and he has been succeeded by his former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

A return to pre-Abe “normality” is impossible, especially given the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet even before 2020, Abe’s break with existing political norms altered the rules of political competition in a way that has opened up new opportunities for the left. Abe’s rise was not the outcome of a significant turn to the right on the part of the electorate. Indeed, his political tactics exacerbated what appears to be a growing gap between the increasingly progressive views of Japanese citizens and those of their elected representatives. However, pollsters also warn that strained relations between the Japanese government and its neighbors in East Asia, abetted by right-wing nationalists, have led to marked increase in the number of people holding prejudicial views of Chinese and South Korean immigrants. In order to have a chance of reversing this trend, hard lessons must be learned from Abe’s success.

When Yukio Hatoyama became Japan’s first DPJ prime minister in 2009, the press heralded the beginning of a new political era. A landslide election led to the first unambiguous transfer of power between political parties since 1955. Abe’s LDP had dominated Japanese politics throughout the country’s postwar era, and the apparent end of that domination was greeted by sky-high expectations for political redemption.

The DPJ wasn’t a radical party by any means. Many of its members were, like Hatoyama, former members of the LDP. It staked its claim to break from the past on a commitment to clean government, transparency, and accountability. These commitments magnified the effects of a campaign finance scandal that engulfed Hatoyama shortly after his election, giving him less room to maneuver to realize his party’s campaign promises—most notably, its pledge to relocate the controversial Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a U.S. military base outside Okinawa. Hatoyama faced an endless parade of American talking heads and government officials decrying the breakdown of diplomatic relations on the front page of Japan’s largest daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun. He finally capitulated when faced with President Obama’s direct opposition. Soon after the DPJ coalition government fractured, and Hatoyama abruptly resigned.

The LDP’s return to power in 2012 was a restoration. The party won in a landslide made possible by a 10 percent drop in voter turnout—the lowest turnout levels for a general election since the end of the Second World War (only surpassed by the even lower turnout for Abe’s snap election in 2014). Abe, who had already served a turbulent term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, benefited from low expectations when he re-entered office five years later. He suffered little from his inability to fulfill his party’s campaign promise to revise the constitution, and polls showed that large numbers of voters continued to support him despite not being persuaded by the excuses he offered up in response to his suspected involvement in two high-profile corruption scandals during the 2017 election.

For many years, the political reformers behind the rise of the DPJ promoted a post–Cold War vision of two evenly matched, middle-of-the-road parties engaged in fair and rational competition, judged on the basis of a common set of ostensibly objective standards—things like GDP growth, jobs creation, and deficit reduction. This vision, an idealization of how politics is supposed to work in the United States and Great Britain, resonated with parliamentary traditions in Japan stretching back to the days of Katsura. It now seems obsolete. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike was misled by this idea in her attempt to purge the left from a new amalgamated centrist party (the Party of Hope) aimed at supplanting Abe in the 2017 lower house election. The divided opposition failed to put a dent in his supermajority, and the left-leaning “rejects” from Koike’s party ended up as the largest opposition party in the Diet, the Constitutional Democratic Party. The rules of politics are in flux again.

Yet there is also no returning to the Cold War, when the socialist left was more or less content with voicing ideologically pure criticism from outside government. Political and administrative reforms passed in the 1990s in an effort to realize that vision of two-party competition now ensure the production of lopsided majorities and more powerful cabinets. Abe’s ability to cling to power in spite of controversy across multiple elections suggests that effective opposition is difficult in the absence of a united left with majoritarian aspirations. Opinion poll aggregator Mitsuki Miharu argues tactical voting is needed to counter the effectiveness of ticket splitting between the LDP and Komeito, a small party with a nationwide religious constituency that has formed coalition governments with the LDP since 1999. For this to work, the opposition has to come together behind a confident rationale for taking power.

The issue of constitutional revision brings the elements of the new era in Japanese politics into focus. The long-standing goal of revising Article 9 of the postwar constitution—the article forbidding the country from waging war and recognizing the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) as a military—occupies a place in Japanese political culture comparable to the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade in the United States. This is not only because both are polarizing and emotionally charged objectives associated with the political right, but because the awesome hurdles that must be overcome in order to realize these goals sustained political movements that unfolded over the course of decades. Abe himself inherited the mission to revise the constitution from his grandfather, the Eisenhower-era Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

Abe came closer than any of his predecessors to accomplishing it. He pushed through a law that laid out the procedure for a national referendum on the constitution during his first short stint as prime minister in 2007. Elections midway through his second term delivered the supermajorities necessary to push such a referendum through over the objections of the opposition.[1] Unlike Hatoyama, Abe could expect strong backing from the United States in his effort to fulfill this campaign promise. Republican and Democratic administrations have pressured Japan to take a more proactive military role in the Pacific since the 1950s. Constitutional revision would grant recognition to Japan’s de facto status as a regional power and pave the way for further cooperation with the United States in a “New Cold War” with China.

The referendum never happened. Investigations into Abe’s scandals, fluctuating poll numbers, infighting within the ruling coalition, and some of the largest political demonstrations since 1960 have all been invoked to explain this outcome. What tends to get overlooked is the degree to which Abe himself undermined the rationale for constitutional revision through executive overreach. In 2014, his cabinet adopted a resolution that expanded the scope of “defensive” action that could be legally undertaken by the SDF. The constitutionality of this resolution depended on a new interpretation of the country’s right to “collective self-defense,” in which its allies formed part of that “collective.” Abe paved the way for this reinterpretation by breaking with the norms regarding the appointment of the powerful director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau—a body of experts appointed to scrutinize the legality of acts of government. For the first time, an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was appointed to head the bureau, and he supported the Abe administration’s proposal to expand the definition before resigning due to ill health. Abe reverted to the old norm for appointments in naming his successor, but he was unwilling to allow the bureau’s traditional watchdog role over this issue.

In 2015, protests inside and outside parliament were unable to prevent the passage of new security laws predicated on the reinterpretation of collective self-defense. Abe’s party held its supermajority in the lower house in the subsequent election. But once the expanded prerogative of the SDF started to be treated as a fait accompli, the center of the debate over constitutional revision turned away from military prohibitions to the “symbolic” significance of an amendment that explicitly recognized the role already played by the SDF.

Some argued that the only reason Abe put the nation through the trouble, expense, and strife of a constitutional referendum to make this symbolic point was his narcissistic attachment to a mission to realize his grandfather’s unfulfilled dream. But in an important sense, the focus on symbolism proved that this issue was never about the technical requirements for national defense in the first place. It was an extension of a right-wing culture war aimed at making Japan a more openly militaristic society. Given this shift in attitudes toward the right, it is not surprising that constitutional revision became a lost cause.

The culture war continues. Neoconservative commentators push the argument that universal conscription would better guarantee peace than sweeping Japan’s de facto military under the rug by calling it the “Self-Defense Force.” They are also highly critical of regulations that require SDF recruits to change into civilian clothes off base. The culture war flared up again less than a month into the first term of Prime Minister Suga. He doubled down on Abe’s predilection for breaking with administrative precedents by refusing to appoint academics who criticized the new security laws to the Science Council of Japan—a body scorned by the right for its opposition to military-related research.

There are no guarantees that the left will win a war of words over pacifism and militarism. While recent polls show a considerable majority (between 65 and 69 percent) are opposed to striking Article 9 from the Constitution, the relevance of the question has changed. “Interpretive revision” (kaishaku kaiken) may have strengthened the case for setting new constitutional limits on the executive branch. After becoming leader of the opposition in 2017, the CPD’s Yukio Edano floated the idea of revising the constitution to restrict the prime minister’s power to call snap elections, a power Abe exploited in an unprecedented way. Yet rather than simply demanding the restoration of norms, the left also needs to be prepared to adapt to a changed situation.

This does not mean forsaking criticism of policies according to their own stated intentions and standards. When it came to the economy, the opposition was most successful when it not only exposed the particular interests that stood to benefit from export-oriented “growthism” but also poked holes in the statistical evidence that undergirded its intended policy choices. These detailed critiques do not conflict with more substantive criticism of the dream of endless export growth implied by Abenomics, and they provide the opposition with a path to power beyond bureaucrat-bashing and caricatures of neoliberalism—tendencies that created problems for the DPJ.

While in power, the DPJ sought simultaneously to expand welfare provisions and balance the budget by subjecting other government programs to a harsh screening process. The proceedings were broadcast live over the internet, with the intention of exposing a system of crony capitalism and pork-barrel spending entrenched through decades of LDP rule. This backfired when some of the targeted programs, a supercomputer program in a particular, attracted broad public support. A more nuanced approach is needed.

As Hajime Sebata argues in his work on public documentation and the state, powerful criticisms of the Abe administration were made possible by earlier movements to make the operations of government bureaucracies more transparent. These movements relied not only on the determined efforts of citizen activists on the left, but also on external (and self-interested) pressure exerted by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. This pressure aimed to make the operation of Japan’s government bureaucracies more transparent as part of a package of reforms aimed at liberalizing trade.

These two streams converged in the 1990s and 2000s in the form of new laws requiring records of government decision-making processes and access to information pertaining to the functioning of state bureaucracies. This requirement was criticized by earlier DPJ administrations for producing wasteful paperwork, but it also provided evidence and a legal basis for criticizing the secrecy of Abe’s government. This criticism clearly has limits—key documents were found lost or tampered with—but abandoning it as powerless in the face of the challenges posed by Abe is premature.

The idea that similar lessons can be derived from the legacies of Abe and Trump may appear to be a nonstarter. Abe is ostensibly a defender of the “rules-based international order,” and Trump is the mad disruptor of it. One celebratory piece on Abe’s legacy dismisses Steve Bannon’s tribute to him as “Trump before Trump” as entirely inaccurate. Bannon can only offer the wrong kind of praise for a prime minister who continued to champion the “globalist” Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after Trump ended U.S. support for the deal.

But Bannon was aware of this policy disagreement when he made this comment. During a 2017 visit to Japan, he had no trouble pivoting from a celebration of Abe’s nationalism to a full-throated defense of Trump’s decision to abandon the multinational agreement. Notably, Bannon’s defense of Trump’s rejection of the multinational agreement came in response to a question that referred to it as the perfect “China-containing project.” Discussions of transpacific affairs are dominated by believers in the benefits of trade liberalization pitching their arguments to right-wing nationalists in the zero-sum language of geopolitical competition—and vice-versa. Abe was receptive to such arguments when it came to the TPP, but he was also willing to use trade restrictions to punish South Korea over a 2018 Korean Supreme Court decision ordering Mitsubishi to pay reparations for forced wartime labor. He engaged in saber-rattling territorial competition with China, offered economic support to the country’s Belt and Road Initiative, and conveyed weaker criticism of the suppression of political dissidents in Hong Kong than the chairman of the Japanese Communist Party.

Bannon’s view that Abe was the vanguard of a global turn toward right-wing nationalism is wishful thinking. Yet praise for the globalist Abe involves an overlapping set of projections. It implies that Abe’s right-wing, nationalist bona fides and achievements are significant only to the extent that they endowed him with the cover and political capital to make whatever brave decisions were necessary to prevent the international order from sinking further into political chaos. It assumes Bannon’s understanding of a world characterized by American decline and geopolitical entropy. In this scheme, the former prime minister’s domestic opposition is completely irrelevant and out of touch. But is Abe really the best leader that can be hoped for in this brave new world?

In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan’s booming economic performance was seen as a threat in the United States. When Abe began his political career in the 1990s, economic stagnation and a revolving door of prime ministers combined to dislodge Japan from the privileged place it had occupied in the American political imagination. Japan’s leaders came under pressure to catch up to a superpower that they had once imagined surpassing. Abe considered this era an embarrassment; symbolically, it came to an end under his watch as prime minister, with the ascension of the Reiwa Emperor in 2019.

The 1990s were also an era in which Japan’s political leadership managed to pass sweeping political reforms that overhauled the country’s electoral system. These reforms were compromised by a wave of post–Cold War triumphalism and the idealization of American political institutions. Yet it is wrong to reduce this era either to neoliberalism or the belated maturation of Japanese democracy. What it shows is that, under the right conditions, the rules of politics can change.

Katsura, Satō, and Abe occupied radically different political worlds, but all faced protest movements with long-term consequences. Universal male suffrage wasn’t attained until twelve years after Katsura left office for the final time. Naoto Kan, a cofounder of the DPJ who became prime minister after Hatoyama resigned, joined the student movement and started his political career as a citizen activist while Satō was in power. As for the long-term effects of the protests against Abe’s government, it is too soon to tell. But earlier moments of unexpected political transformation required considerable support from within the Diet. This means it is more important than ever for the left to coalesce around a clear and confident alternative that resonates with popular needs the LDP cannot fulfill.

Adam Bronson is assistant professor of Modern Japanese History at Durham University. He is author of One Hundred Million Philosophers: Science of Thought and the Culture of Democracy in Postwar Japan.

[1] In the House of Representatives, the Diet’s lower house, the ruling LDP–Komeito coalition maintained a supermajority throughout Abe’s entire second term in office (2012–2020). This was not the case in the House of Councilors, but the ruling coalition along with two small pro-revision parties and government-aligned independents constituted a slim supermajority from 2016 to 2019.