Japan's bitter prospects after Abe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2007, 12:00am

Shinzo Abe has finally acknowledged his deep unpopularity and decided to resign as Japan's prime minister. But the timing of his announcement offered a final, telling example of his lack of leadership. That Mr Abe checked into hospital the next day suffering from stress and exhaustion spoke eloquently about the political chef who could not stand the heat in the kitchen.

More worrying is that Japan now seems set for an extended period of political stalemate and haggling, which will see essential economic reforms shelved and the world's second-biggest economy behaving like a third-rate country. It is a time for a cool statesman with a global vision and imagination, but all Japan can offer is greedy, squabbling feudal and factional chiefs.

More than half a dozen candidates are jockeying to succeed, all of such stellar quality that some disgruntled members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are trying to draft Japanese heart-throb former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to return to the job.

He was so popular that he managed to achieve for the LDP its current two-thirds leadership of the lower house of parliament, in the face of opposition from the party's old guard. But he has resisted all blandishments to return.

The immediate question among Japan's chattering classes is why Mr Abe irresponsibly announced his decision to resign just when parliament had begun meeting to discuss one of his most-cherished measures, that is, extending the anti-terrorism law to allow Japanese naval forces to support international operations in Afghanistan. He had pledged to US President George W. Bush and other Asia-Pacific allies only last weekend that he would get the extension.

His resignation now, only days after he gave the opening speech to the parliamentary session, means parliament will be suspended until the leadership is settled - leaving less time to get the measure passed. Internationally, Mr Abe's failure raises questions about whether Japan's leaders are men of straw.

If Mr Abe had resigned immediately after his massive defeat in the upper house election in July, it might have given the LDP time to get its act together. It could have chosen a new leader and put together a coherent policy on how to deal with the resurgent opposition.

But now the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, bolstered by its victory in the upper house elections and having seen off Mr Abe, has its tail up. It's not likely to give the new leader a honeymoon period. Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ president, repeated his opposition to the extension of the anti-terrorism law, and will press the government to call for new elections to the lower house.

But this is something the LDP government dare not do, with its popularity at 30 per cent. The LDP is now prisoner of its own murky past. Mr Abe's last cabinet reshuffle of a few weeks ago concentrated power back in the hands of the party's old guard. These are local chiefs, dedicated to corrupt, pork-barrel practices that will move Japan closer to its feudal roots - and further away from the modern economy that needs bolstering with reforms beyond those done by Mr Koizumi.

Thoughtful economists like Robert Feldman of Morgan Stanley fear that the policy implications of Mr Abe's sudden resignation are the unfolding of a nightmare scenario in which the LDP and the opposition embark on a competition for who can spend more to coddle sacred cows like agriculture, small business and wasteful regional schemes.

The choices confronting the LDP are tough. Wooing Mr Koizumi might strengthen the party's reputation with the electorate. But it would be an act of masochism by the old guard, who have just succeeded in undoing the damage Mr Koizumi did to them in the party.

All the mainstream candidates are grey except for Taro Aso, the LDP's secretary-general. It is a telling comment on Mr Abe's resignation that shares in companies producing or selling manga (comic books) soared in the hope that Mr Aso will take over. Mr Aso loves manga, devouring several thick volumes a week. Like Mr Abe, he has politics in his blood and is the grandson of a former prime minister.

Mr Aso is something of a manga cartoonist's dream because he suffers from foot-in-mouth disease with an arrogant, cutting edge. Indeed, some of his sayings would make their own series of manga. Most recently, he declared that 'even people with Alzheimer's disease' could understand that Japanese rice was more expensive in China than in Japan.

Earlier, Mr Aso made disparaging remarks about the political prospects of the burakumin, Japan's underclass, which led to his being called a 'ruling-class bigot'.

All Japan's neighbours would be concerned about Mr Aso's hawkish, nationalist views. In 2005, he praised Japan for being 'one nation, one language, one culture and one race' - the only such country in the world.

He also praised Japan's colonial contributions to Taiwan and Korea. As foreign minister, he said the problems of the Middle East could never be solved by Americans because they had blue eyes and blond hair.

Last year, he upset Beijing by calling Taiwan a 'country', and saying that 'its democracy is considerably matured and [its ] liberal economics are deeply ingrained, so it is a law-abiding country. In various ways, it is a country that shares a sense of values with Japan'.

The best hope would be that Mr Aso might grow into the job and revere his grandfather, Shigeru Yoshida, who did more than anyone else to help Japan rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes and defeat of war.

Mr Aso has inherited his grandfather's arrogance, but prime minister Yoshida contained it in a cool head that put economic reform first and foremost. He even defied the US conquerors when they wanted Japan to increase its military spending.

If Mr Aso could update his grandfather's nationalist realpolitik, he might become something more than a manga star.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, a study of Japan Inc and internationalism