Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is a very lucky man. Despite a plethora of scandals that have erupted since he took office for the second time as prime minister in December 2012, scandals that would have toppled previous cabinets—Morimoto Gakuen, Kakei Gakuen, serious shortcomings and gaffes by his cabinet officers, government manipulation of employment data, etc.—he is well on his way to becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. What accounts for his remarkable staying power?
First, the opposition is in disarray. According to an NHK public opinion poll conducted February 9-11, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party enjoys a 37.1% support rate among the Japanese public compared to a mere 5.1% support for the leading opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party. But it should be noted that 41.5 percent of the respondents replied that they do not support any political party. Similarly, although support for the Abe cabinet is 44% versus a non-support of 37%, the biggest reason for support, registering 51%, was not a positive endorsement but rather that “it seems to be better than other cabinets.”
Second, Abe has effectively quashed opposition within the LDP, so there are no strong rivals in the party to challenge him. And those LDP politicians often mentioned as a potential successor—Ishiba Shigeru, Kishida Fumio, Kato Katsunobu, and Kono Taro—all have perceived shortcomings that will impede their ability to succeed Abe before he completes his third three-year term as prime minister in September 2021, barring a devastating scandal, a serious illness, or a major election loss.
Third, Japanese voters were fed up with the turmoil and volatility created by the succession of six prime ministers—Abe Shinzo, Fukuda Yasuo, Aso Taro, Hatoyama Yukio, Kan Naoto, and Noda Yoshihiko—in the six years between the prime ministership of Koizumi Junichiro (2001-2006) and the return of Abe Shinzo as prime minister in 2012. Therefore, despite various complaints about Abe, they have opted to cast their votes in favor of political and economic stability, continuity, and predictability—traits valued more highly in Japan than in any other G7 country.
Finally, Japan faces an increasingly uncertain and hostile international environment. And the countries most important to Japan—the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea—all have “strong-man” leaders who believe they alone can lead their country to prosperity and greatness. With the possible exception of Kono Taro, none of Abe’s potential rivals as prime minister is perceived to possess the combination of guile, cunning, and ruthlessness necessary to confront the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un, ROK President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and American President Donald J. Trump. Given the above, conditions are ripe for Abe to assert, “I alone can fix it.”
Along with revising the Constitution and obtaining the release of Japanese nationals abducted by the DPRK, concluding a peace treaty with Russia has long been one of Abe’s top policy priorities. The main obstacle, from Japan’s perspective, has been Russia’s refusal to return to Japan four of the Kurile Islands—Habomai, Shikotan, Etorofu, and Kunashiri—seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.
Abe has met with Putin nearly 30 times over the past 10 years in an attempt to make progress on this issue. Here, the “I alone can fix it” thinking prevails on both sides, with some justification. Each side believes that both leaders need to be in a strong position domestically in order to deliver on a deal that will not be an easy sell to their domestic constituents. Abe, because of his nationalistic credentials, may be able to sell a deal to Japan that at least initially is packaged as “two islands (Habomai and Shikotan) plus alpha,” rather than a deal that requires Russia to return all four islands up front.
Although the traditional Japanese stance of “four islands or nothing” has softened in recent years, especially with Abe showing some flexibility, the Russian position appears to have hardened recently, at least as expressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other senior Russian officials. This may reflect Putin’s declining domestic support. However, many in Japan believe that Putin has the power to cut a deal if he truly wishes to do so, and that Abe’s careful and almost obsequious cultivation of Putin over the past decade, including offers of economic incentives, will yield positive results, as only two “strong-man” leaders can achieve.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The only instance when Japan achieved progress in obtaining the release of Japanese abductees by the DPRK was when Koizumi went to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-il on September 17, 2002. And the only time the US president expressed confidence about the DPRK’s willingness to abandon its development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles was when Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, 2018. In dealing with the DPRK, both the US and Japan have concluded that progress is possible only by engaging the nation’s dynastic leader, whether Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un. In this respect, Abe’s “I alone can fix it” attitude is understandable from a domestic perspective in that he alone can claim to be Kim Jong-un’s counterpart. However, unlike Russia—where the major issues are bilateral, i.e., between Japan and Russia—in the case of the DPRK, the drivers are the US, China, and the ROK, and Japan has been relegated to the sidelines, in part because of insistence on the return of the abductees and the DPRK’s focus on the US as its primary negotiating counterpart.
The “I alone can fix it” approach clearly has limits if Abe wants to make progress with the DPRK. Although Japan-China relations have begun to thaw in recent months, they have not progressed enough for Abe to be able to exert influence on Kim through Xi. And the recent deterioration of Japan-ROK relations means it is unlikely that Abe can influence Kim through Moon. This leaves Trump as the only potential ally that Abe can rely on to exert influence on Kim regarding nuclear weapons, missiles, and abductees. To this end, Abe has repeatedly prevailed upon Trump to press Kim for the release of Japanese abductees. Abe has drawn attention to this publicly to ensure he gains maximum political credit domestically for his efforts. Recent media reports that Abe, in response to a US request, has recommended that Trump be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize reflect Trump’s deal-making instincts to demand from Abe a quid pro quo for raising the abductee issue (and perhaps the short-range missile issue) with Kim.
Republic of Korea
The pros and cons of the “I alone can fix it” approach are evident in Japan’s relations with the ROK over the issue of “comfort women.” Abe’s firmly held views of modern history contributed to tensions between Japan and the ROK after Abe’s return to the prime ministership in December 2012, exacerbated by his official visit to Yasukuni Shrine a year later. ROK President Park Geun-hye’s background as the daughter of Park Chung-hee added another layer of historical complexity to the bilateral relationship. But with considerable urging by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, Japan and the ROK were finally able to arrive at an agreement on the “comfort women” issue on December 28, 2015. But Park’s impeachment by the ROK National Assembly in December 2016, followed by her removal from office and sentencing to 24 years in prison, and the election of Moon Jae-in to the presidency in May 2017, have resulted in the annulment of the 2015 agreement. The fragility of the agreement was partly because it relied entirely on the two leaders who reached it. Once one of the leaders left the scene, her successor determined that the agreement should be nullified.
More recent differences between Japan and the ROK—including the ROK Supreme Court’s verdicts in favor of Koreans suing Japanese companies for compensation for forced labor during World War Two, frictions between the two nations’ militaries, and Japanese backlash against ROK National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s reference to the Japanese Emperor—demonstrate that an “I alone can fix it” approach has little chance of succeeding in mending relations between Japan and the ROK.
People’s Republic of China
Abe and Xi, despite their significant differences, have come to recognize, as realists, that they need to engage with each other since neither is likely to leave their respective positions soon as leader of Japan and China. And both realize that it is in their self-interest to mend at least the economic relations between their two countries, given the need to ensure sustained economic growth in the context of an increasingly unreliable and unpredictable US. For Xi, a sustained trade war with the US threatens China’s ability to continue growing at a level necessary to guarantee domestic support for future rule by the Chinese Communist Party. That is, a significant economic slowdown risks fomenting pent-up domestic opposition to its rule, perhaps the scenario most feared by Xi and his Party cadres. For Abe, the Trump administration’s potential use of Section 232 (national security provision) of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 means that, as in the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese automobile exports to the US may be curtailed. In addition, if Trump believes, rightly or wrongly, that progress is being made on denuclearizing the DPRK, he may decide to withdraw or reduce US forces from the ROK and even Japan, which would force Japan to significantly boost its defense expenditures, which currently stand at roughly 1% of GDP, half of what Trump is demanding of his NATO allies.
Given the realities of the international environment and of domestic politics in Japan and China, the two leaders have no viable option but to engage with each other, hoping that the other’s grip on his domestic constituents is strong enough to deliver positive bilateral results that will help sustain their continued hold on power.
One source of Abe’s continued strength in Japan is the view—actively promoted by Abe and his supporters—that Abe is Trump’s favorite foreign leader and that Trump, as a complete novice to politics and policy, constantly relies on Abe for advice on a wide range of issues, including especially foreign policy. In this sense, Abe has succeeded in justifying his “I alone can fix it” approach to relations with the US. Abe is certainly helped by Trump, who averred in his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland, Ohio on July 21, 2016: "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it." And when asked on Fox News on November 2, 2017 whether it was a problem to have so many vacancies in senior positions at the Department of State, Trump replied, “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me, I’m the only one that matters because when it comes to it that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly."
As has so often been the case in the past, American arrogance and naivete leave room for foreign leaders to maneuver the American president to their own domestic political advantage, and Japan is no exception. Certainly, Nakasone Yasuhiro was able to capitalize on his “Ron-Yasu relationship” with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, just as Koizumi was able to do with his “George-Junichiro relationship” with George W. Bush in the 2000s.The prevailing view in the US is the opposite—that despite fawning attempts by Abe to curry Trump’s favor, Trump has left Abe in the lurch, especially on the DPRK, and is pursuing his own agenda to “Make America Great Again.” But the verdict is still out whether it is Trump who is taking advantage of Abe or vice versa.
Actually, the two are not mutually exclusive, and a symbiotic relationship has developed over the past two years. It is quite plausible that Trump is relying on Abe for casino concessions in Japan to satisfy Trump’s political supporters in the US, for arms sales in Japan to satisfy Trump’s supporters in the military-industrial complex, for Japanese corporate investments in the US to help Trump fulfill his campaign pledge to create more American jobs, and for post-presidential hotel, real estate, and golf course deals in Japan to benefit Trump, as well as his family members. After all, the US under Trump has come to resemble a banana republic, and foreign leaders have not been slow to realize this.
In return, what Abe gains is not insignificant, a free hand: to negotiate a peace treaty with Russia, to reject Asian views of Japan’s role in modern history, to revise the Constitution, to bolster Japan’s military capabilities, and to impress upon the Japanese public that he alone can lead Japan because foreign leaders, including especially Trump, place trust and confidence in him. Although Abe has not recently used the term he was so fond of using in the past, “escape the shackles of the postwar regime,” the advent of Donald Trump, coupled with a hostile international environment, is providing Abe precisely the opportunity he and his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke sought to realize their ambition to make Japan a truly autonomous nation.
The “I alone can fix it” syndrome has traditionally been a feature of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, where the leader has few institutional checks on his or her power. In recent years, however, even democratic nations such as the US have chosen leaders who display autocratic tendencies. Some would attribute this to growing populism, where the voters themselves, dissatisfied with what they view as inadequate attention being given to their needs by incumbent politicians, are voting them out and replacing them with “strong-man” leaders who promise unorthodox solutions to “fix” their problems.
In considering why such a populist surge has not emerged in Japan, three reasons are often cited. First, Japan has not permitted the huge disparities in income and wealth that have incited anti-elite resentment in many of the other G7 countries. Second, Japan has not allowed large waves of immigration that have fomented xenophobia in these countries. Finally, Japan’s prime minister is already a nationalist who displays an “I alone can fix it” attitude, appealing to conservatives and acting as a safety valve that has kept the lid on ultra-right extremists. If so, perhaps there is a silver lining to the “I alone can fix it” phenomenon.