Shinzo Abe’s vision of a beautiful Japan

Monzurul Huq writes from Tokyo
Japan is getting ready for a new prime minister to assume the office in less than three weeks’ time. The September 20 election of a new head of the main ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is to draw the final curtain of five-year rule of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and pave the way for a new leader to guide the country, taking a probable new course.

If everything goes as expected, the chief cabinet secretary of the Koizumi cabinet, Shinzo Abe, is to become that new leader and take the helm of running the government at least until he proves himself capable enough of holding the balance of power within various factions and party stalwarts. A number of recent opinion polls give a clear indication that he is ahead of two other candidates by far in the leadership race and it would be a miracle if the outcome turns out to be different.

Abe also is aware of this reality perfectly well, and sensing a clear victory, he announced his candidacy last Friday with a full-fledged plan for what he proclaimed as a blueprint for a “beautiful country — Japan.” The blueprint, as was expected, unrevealed the arsenal of weaponry that Abe possesses, along with some flowers that he also has at his disposal.

At the core of his policy platform is the proposal to amend the constitution. Announcing his candidacy for party presidential race, Abe made it clear that he would like to see Japan having a constitution appropriate for the country in a new era. In the past too Abe did not hide his intention of revising the Japanese constitution to bring it in line with what he considers the reality of present day global politics.

His eyes have always been firmly focused on Article 9 of the constitution that renounces war as a sovereign right of the state. It is no wonder that the blueprint for “a beautiful Japan” puts so much stress on the amendment of constitution. Abe has long been regarded as hawkish on defense issues and in the past he even argued that Japan’s war-renouncing peace constitution, even without amendment, should be interpreted as allowing the country to use the right of collective self-defense. But one important missing link in his announced policy plan is, though he is advocating constitutional amendment, he did not elaborate on how he would like to do that.

It is also interesting to see that in making public his desire to revise the constitution, Abe echoed the voice of his late grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who long cherished the desire to create a new, self-made constitution and do away with the legacy of Japan’s post-war occupation. In the speech Abe delivered in Hiroshima to announce his candidacy, as if reflecting the ideas of his grandfather, he said: “The constitution was established under an occupation and we should draw up a new constitution of our own.” We know Kishi, despite his strong desire, could go nowhere near constitutional revision. It would be, therefore, quite interesting to observe how far the grandson, representing a new generation of Japanese citizens, would be able to go on this particular issue.

Abe also announced that he intended to reform the education system so that the coming generations of Japanese could feel proud of their beautiful country. Education reform is another thorny issue being debated in Japan for quite some time now. The extreme right-wing opinion among politicians of the ruling group holds the view that the current education system is mostly to be blamed for what they see as erosion of social and cultural values among the young Japanese. They are working for quite a long time to bring in the changes and what Abe would like to see is acceleration of the process. Abe wants students to get the right message that nurturing a strong attachment and love for their beautiful country is what the education system should infuse in them.

As to diplomacy and foreign policy, Abe spoke of the importance of improving relations with China and South Korea, in addition to the already strong Japan-US ties. He did not hesitate to declare that he would regain the trust of Beijing and Seoul. But here too, we do not see any concrete proposal of how he intends to do that. On the contrary, there is a deliberate attempt on his part to avoid mentioning the most controversial issue of Japan’s bilateral relations with China and South Korea, the Yasukuni Shrine visit debate.

Tokyo’s relations with both China and South Korea soured because of Koizumi’s repeated visits to the shrine, which honors convicted war criminals along with the nation’s war dead. Abe has earlier always supported Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit, and it had been revealed in the Japanese media recently that he too visited the shrine in spring as chief cabinet secretary. Moreover, he also refuses to confirm if he will visit the shrine again. As a result, how far in reality he would be able to mend ties with China and South Korea remains to be seen.

It maintained his hard-line policy toward North Korea as he mentioned that solving the problem of abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea will be one of his priorities. As South Korea is increasingly coming closer to her northern adversary, the position of Abe on North Korea might give rise to new diplomatic tension with Seoul. He also spoke of his intention of strengthening the Japan-US alliance. Abe believes that the strengthening of the Japan-US military alliance is a pre-requisite for maintaining peace and stability in North East Asia.

It is not only political rhetoric concerning few controversial domestic issues in addition to Japan’s diplomatic standing that have been included in the policy outline of Abe. He has flowers too at his disposal and did not hide his desire to offer those to the people, should he become the next leader.

Abe said he plans to drive policy via political leadership rather than bureaucracy. He called for economic growth and prosperity through innovation and proposed reviewing the country’s work habits, encouraging more people to work outside the office by making better use of the Internet and other technology. He also said he would establish an easy-to-understand pension system and work on to create a society prepared to give people a second chance. It all sounded too good for many in Japan as he proclaimed: “I want to make Japan a nation that is respected by the world’s people and in which children will feel glad to be born.”

It is most likely that September 20 party leadership race of LDP will see Abe emerging victorious. As a result, many in Japan are already focusing on how in reality he is going to deliver results based on all these promises and commitments. No doubt there will be a long wait before people find out how firmly he can stick to the commitments he made.

Monzurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.

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