Shinzo Abe has already outperformed his five immediate predecessors, putting to rest the idea that a Japanese prime minister couldn’t stay in office for more than a year. Now, he is approaching a milestone. He will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history if he remains in office until November. But Abe is looking beyond that, with a chance to serve out his current term as prime minister until 2021, since he was overwhelmingly re-elected last fall for a third and final term as president of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. The party can effectively determine the prime minister since it controls large majorities in both houses of the Diet, Japan’s legislature.
This moment has not been lost on Abe, especially after his disastrous and truncated first term as prime minister, which lasted from September 2006 to September 2007. But before Abe can start burnishing his legacy, he’ll have to get through a decisive year ahead.
The biggest item on the calendar is the upper house elections in July. If the LDP, along with its coalition partner, the Komeito, is able to maintain its two-thirds supermajority, Abe’s legislative options increase dramatically. If not, his plans may not be so grand.
With the new Diet session starting this week, the Abe administration has a full wish list of items, including social security reform and other structural reforms of the economy. But with the summer elections looming, Abe doesn’t have much political space to pursue his agenda until after the vote. Abe must also contend with a controversial commitment to raise Japan’s consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent that will take effect this fall—a move he delayed twice already due to concerns that it would hurt a fragile economic recovery. This has led to speculation that Abe may look to dissolve the lower house at the same time as the upper house and call a risky “double election,” essentially to pre-empt any backlash over the consumption tax increase and also increase the stakes for voters who may be wavering on supporting the LDP this summer.
Abe’s economic program, known as “Abenomics,” has aimed to lift Japan out of decades of economic stagnation. He has also transformed the role of Japan in international diplomacy, traveling much more than any of his predecessors and becoming the pitchman for the international rules-based order, in the face of rising protectionism and the sustained challenge of managing China’s growing assertiveness. Abe deserves some credit, especially given the circumstances. Japan helped lead the way to the swift finalization of two major free-trade deals last year: the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the salvaged TPP.
But 2019 will present more tests. Revising Japan’s pacifist constitution remains one of Abe’s unfulfilled ambitions, and one that he hopes to tie to his legacy. Abe wants the constitution to officially recognize the role of Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, within Article 9, which “renounces war” completely as a means to settle international disputes. For decades, the Self-Defense Forces have had de-facto constitutionality, but Abe insists that this should be clarified and codified through a constitutional revision. But given Japan’s postwar political culture, any changes to the constitution regarding the military are hugely symbolic and polarizing.
If his coalition loses its supermajority in the Diet this summer, Abe’s plans may not be so grand.Abe is in a historically strong position to attempt it with supermajorities in the Diet, but faces resistance to prioritizing constitutional changes over other focus areas, such as the economy, even within the conservative LDP. Outside the LDP, Abe would either have to make concessions with the Komeito or risk his party’s longstanding coalition, since the Komeito has dovish views on the role of the military and has traditionally stood by Japan’s pacifist stance. Public opinion also isn’t exactly on Abe’s side. According to a recent poll by national broadcaster NHK, only 23 percent supported holding discussions soon on revision, while 50 percent indicated that the process should not be rushed. Even in the rosiest scenarios, any possibility of revising the constitution hinges fully on the upper house elections this summer and Abe’s ability to maintain his coalition’s supermajority.
Abe has prioritized two other potential legacy areas that have long been elusive to Japanese leaders. First, he has pushed for a resolution to the long-running saga involving Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. In 2002, after then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, five Japanese citizens were returned to much fanfare in Tokyo. The short detente quickly ended, however, when North Korea claimed that the remaining suspected abductees were dead, missing, or had never been taken to begin with. Successive leaders, Abe included, have failed to produce any more meaningful progress, and it seems unlikely that Abe will break this trend. Pyongyang feels that it has considerable leverage now with Japan, considering both its warmer relations with South Korea, which is in the midst of its own nasty row again with Tokyo over historical grievances and other issues, and its improving ties with China and the United States. There is frankly no urgency for North Korea to resolve the abductions with Japan, which all but eliminates any chance for a political win for Abe on the matter.
The second legacy area would be a resolution of the decades-old dispute with Russia over the Southern Kuril Islands, referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan. There are four islands in dispute—Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai and Shikotan—which Russia has administered since the Soviet Union seized them at the end of World War II. Tokyo has long insisted that all four be returned to Japan, despite the lack of any real intention from Moscow to acquiesce to such demands. Abe has met with Putin on 25 occasions since 2013, but it’s unlikely that Russia will budge on any compromise that involves ceding territory to Japan. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed earlier this month—ahead of Abe’s latest visit to Russia on Jan. 22—Japan must first accept Russia’s sovereignty over the islands in dispute before any steps could be made to sign a peace treaty to officially end their World War II-era hostilities.
Beyond these stubborn issues, the Abe administration will have its hands full this year on a number of other foreign policy files, including managing risks from the potential for a deal or quid pro quo between the U.S. and North Korea that might soften Washington’s insistence that Pyongyang verifiably dismantle its nuclear and missile inventories, including short- and medium-range missiles that are of top concern to Japan. Tokyo must also continue to navigate a complex relationship with China that, despite modest improvements, remains plagued by mistrust. Finally, Japan’s cyclically troubled relationship with South Korea now appears to be hitting its nadir with a series of vitriolic and public spats over historical issues and, most recently and of deep concern, military tensions. But perhaps the biggest wildcard for Abe on the foreign policy front will be his ability to manage relations with the U.S. under Donald Trump, who has pressed Japan hard to come to the table and agree on a bilateral trade deal after he spurned Japan by withdrawing from the TPP.
This is the forecast ahead as Abe looks to balance his steady stewardship and remarkably long tenure with his deep desire to a produce a lasting historical legacy.