On November 20, 2019, Abe Shinzo became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, at 2,887 days, surpassing the previous record held by Katsura Tarō in the early 1900s. If Abe serves out his current third three-year term, he will be in office until September 2021. Inclusive of his one-year tenure in 2006-2007, he will have served as prime minister for 10 years. This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering that during the eight years of the Clinton administration (1993-2001), Japan had seven prime ministers (Miyazawa Kiichi, Hosokawa Morihiro, Hata Tsutomu, Murayama Tomiichi, Hashimoto Ryutaro, Obuchi Keizo, and Mori Yoshiro), and during the six years between Koizumi Junichiro’s departure as prime minister in 2006 and Abe’s return as prime minister in 2012, Japan had a procession of one prime minister per year (Abe, Fukuda Yasuo, Aso Taro, Hatoyama Yukio, Kan Naoto, and Noda Yoshihiko). Abe’s unusually long tenure in office, the nature of his prime ministership, and the international environment surrounding Japan in the 2010s have all contributed to changes in how international relations in Asia are viewed.
Explaining Abe’s success
Abe’s success since returning to power can be attributed to several factors. First, the opposition parties have been in disarray since losing in a landslide election to the Liberal Democratic Party/Komeito coalition in December 2012. Second, the three-year three-month reign of the Democratic Party of Japan (2009-2012) was considered by many Japanese voters to have been a disappointment and failure, making it difficult for the opposition to win back the support of the voters and to regain power in the near future. Third, Abe has been skillful in keeping tight reins on his potential rivals in the LDP, at times using strong-arm tactics to quash those who might challenge him as the party leader. Fourth, Abe has adopted social and economic policies—urging corporate management to raise workers’ wages, promoting women in the workplace, increasing government expenditures for daycare facilities, reducing the tuition burden on students, etc.—that have traditionally been advocated by progressives, thus stealing the thunder from many of his opposition party rivals. Fifth, as is explained below, Abe has succeeded in creating a strong “presidential” prime ministership in Japan.
One of the enduring rules of politics in Japan, and perhaps in many countries, is that when there is an unending change of leadership at the top, other institutions—such as the government bureaucracy or the military—step in and provide the necessary stability, continuity, and predictability. This was the case in Japan during the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, when bureaucrats were providing much of the nation’s institutional memory, policymaking expertise, and execution know-how. By contrast, for the past seven years Japan has had one prime minister, supported by Suga Yoshihide, who also assumed office in December 2012 and by July 2016 had become the longest-serving chief cabinet secretary, and who is in many respects the power behind the throne, protecting Abe and enforcing discipline and continuity across successive cabinets. The pendulum has swung to such an extent away from bureaucratic leadership that power is now more fully centralized in the Kantei (prime minister’s office) than at any time since the end of WWII.
The Nature of Abe’s leadership
The conscious attempt by Abe and Suga to consolidate power in the Kantei derives in large measure from Abe’s experience “in the wilderness” between 2007, when he resigned in disgrace, and 2012, when he resumed power. During this period, Abe reflected on his failed one-year tenure as prime minister, strategized on how to make a comeback, and formulated policies he would pursue—such as Abenomics—if he were successful in regaining power. Thus, immediately upon resuming the post, he was ready to institute monetary and financial policies that in one year hiked the Nikkei stock index by 56.7% and devalued the yen against the dollar by 18%, boosting corporate profits and expanding Japanese exports.
Among the lessons Abe learned from his first time at the top was the need for the prime minister to exercise control: to monitor and shape the environment to the benefit and advantage of himself and the party in power, including information, as collected, disseminated, and explained by the mass media. But such attempts to influence the media became so obvious and obtrusive that by June 2017, David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, cited “significant worrying signals” in his report on Japan to the United Nations Human Rights Council, including alleged government pressure on the media and restrictions on information access justified on national security grounds. According to the World Press Freedom Index compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders, Japan’s ranking in press freedom dropped (out of 180 countries) from 53rd in 2013 to 59th in 2014, 61st in 2015, 72nd in 2016, and 72nd in 2017.
A second important element for Abe to shape was the academic narrative on Japan, including, especially, its role before and during WWII. The Abe Kantei, more than most in recent years, has been careful to distinguish academics who view history in ways consistent with the nationalist Nippon Kaigi, members of which include Abe and several in his cabinet. Priority issues for Nippon Kaigi include revising the Constitution, revising textbooks, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, confronting charges made about “comfort women,” and revising the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. This effort is not confined to Japan’s borders. Whereas the government of Tanaka Kakuei in 1973 contributed $1 million each to 10 American universities to strengthen their programs in Japanese studies, the Abe government has, in addition to more generously funding several universities in North America, has been much more focused and purposeful in denying grants to academics whose views may not be to its liking.
1. It is also funding a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank that presented Abe with an award in 2013 and whose president, according to press accounts, is about to be nominated to be the next American ambassador to Japan.
A third method of shaping the environment is to control the career path of senior government bureaucrats. In 2014, Abe established a Personnel Affairs Bureau in the Cabinet Office, which allows him to control more than 600 bureaucratic appointments, three times the previous number. Long-time observers of the Japanese bureaucracy point out that bureaucrats have become much more risk-averse than in the past and are more prone simply to follow orders from their political bosses than to ask questions, challenge, or undertake policy initiatives, as was the case even a few years ago. There have been cases of bureaucrats who, in off-the-record gatherings, have questioned or expressed personal skepticism of the official policy line and have found their careers damaged or cut short as a result. It has been alleged that in some cases, journalists who have established cozy give-and-take relationships with the Kantei were the ones who reported these bureaucrats to their political masters. This has led some bureaucrats and former bureaucrats to warn that “the Kantei is taking Japan down the road to becoming a police state.”
A fourth method of control is to increase the number of “political appointees” assigned to the government ministries to ensure that these ministries adhere faithfully to the Kantei’s policy line. Since Abe’s return to the prime ministership, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of such politicians seconded to senior positions in the ministries. What used to be one or two, or at most three such slots, has climbed to typically between five and seven in each ministry.
Finally, Abe has strengthened enormously the power of the Kantei itself by hiring numerous political allies as “advisors,” “special advisors,” and “deputy special advisors” to assume policymaking positions. Perhaps the most famous among them is Imai Takaya, a former bureaucrat from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and long-time confidant of Abe who is credited with playing a key role in policies toward China, Russia, North Korea, and the United States, at times diverging from policies recommended by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In addition to powerful individuals, the Kantei has been strengthened institutionally by the creation of a National Security Council in November 2013. Abe had tried to create an NSC in the Kantei during his first time as prime minister, but ran out of time before having to resign. From 2012, Abe put top priority on establishing it and chose Yachi Shotaro, former vice minister for foreign affairs and a trusted ally, as the first person to lead the organization. The NSC now has a staff of over 60 officials, primarily seconded from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. However, a recent reorganization of the NSC has resulted in expanding the personnel and authority of the organization to encompass issues of economic security—including cybersecurity, energy, high technology, intellectual property protection, and economic diplomacy. The appointment of Kitamura Shigeru, a veteran of the National Police Agency and former head of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, as Yachi’s successor to head the NSC, is seen to reflect Abe’s strong desire to keep a tight rein on information and intelligence connected to relevant issues, policies, groups, and individuals, both domestic and foreign.
By shaping the media reporting and academic discourse, by controlling the career path of senior government bureaucrats, by imposing more political appointees on government agencies, and by strengthening the Kantei through adding both individual hires and institutional functions, Abe has succeeded in creating for the first time a “presidential” prime minister in Japan, where power is consolidated in the Kantei.
Abe’s leadership and international relations in Asia
The above background, which explains Abe’s success in retaining power for such an extended period of time and the personal and institutional consolidation of power in the Kantei, provides the context to understand Abe’s leadership in international affairs, in Asia and beyond. When Abe regained the prime ministership, many observers wondered whether his nationalist leanings and revisionist views of history would dominate, leading him to focus on national security goals such as revising the Constitution, or whether his realism would take over, leading him to focus on reviving the economy and reforming Japan’s social welfare system in the face of demographic decline. Over the past seven years, he has attempted to do both and with a certain measure of success. But Abenomics has not met the goal of curbing deflation or raising real wages, and Abe’s top stated priorities—negotiating the return of the Northern Territories and concluding a peace treaty with Russia, securing the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea and signing a peace treaty with the DPRK, and revising the Constitution—remain unfulfilled.
Merely by holding onto power for as long as he has, however, Abe has made a mark few others have achieved. Among leaders in the G7 countries, only Angela Merkel has been in power longer than he. (Merkel became chancellor on November 22, 2005, and on December 23, 2019 became the second longest serving chancellor in modern Germany, at 5,144 days, overtaking Konrad Adenauer. She would have to stay in office for another 726 days to beat the record set by Helmut Kohl, unlikely because she has announced that she will retire from politics in 2020.) The continuity, stability, and experience reflected in Abe’s tenure means that he is able to claim the status of “senior global statesman,” something few Japanese prime ministers could claim. It allows him to assert—at least to a Japanese audience—that he is the foreign leader most trusted and sought after as an advisor on issues of foreign policy by none other than President Donald Trump, a complete neophyte on foreign affairs. And it leads some observers (curiously, not many in Japan) to place high expectations on Abe to assert leadership to preserve and promote the liberal international order. For instance, the prominent international relations theorist John Ikenberry has made the following argument:
“If the liberal international order is to survive, leaders and constituencies around the world that still support it will need to step up. Much will rest on the shoulders of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the only two leaders of consequence left standing who support it. Trump has abdicated responsibility for the world the United States built, and only time will tell the full extent of the damage he will wreak.”2
Indeed, in Washington, D.C., diplomats from not a few embassies have been known to ask their Japanese and American counterparts, “How has Prime Minister Abe been able to establish such a close and friendly relationship with President Trump? What is the secret formula our head of state can learn from Prime Minister Abe?”
Abe’s support level in Japanese public opinion polls hovers under 50%, and he is not a particularly popular prime minister. He has been wracked by a string of scandals, as well as scandals swirling around politicians close to him, including cabinet members. And the reason most often cited by voters who support him is that “there is no political leader that I find more attractive.” Yet in the view of many Japanese, Abe is the right person at the right time to be their prime minister. With Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Trump in the United States, the rise of populist and nationalist parties and politicians around the world, and the need to stand up to autocratic and dictatorial leaders, who can best represent Japan on the world stage? Few Japanese politicians are seen to possess the combination of fortitude, determination, guile, and chutzpah to “handle” the likes of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Narendra Modi.
Related to this is the question of why Japan, perhaps alone among the industrialized countries, has not seen an uprising of virulent populism in recent years. One often cited reason is that Japan has among the lowest Gini coefficients among the G7 countries. Through Japan’s compensation, pension, tax, and other policy mechanisms, vast inequalities of income and wealth have been minimized, making it hard to claim, as some do in the United States, that “Wall Street billionaires are ripping off the common people.” Another factor is that Japan has enforced extremely strict immigration, refugee, and asylum laws that have severely limited the number of non-Japanese living in Japan; so few Japanese believe their jobs have been lost to low-wage immigrants or that their social services are being unfairly expropriated by foreigners.
But a third reason is that Japan has in Abe a leader who already embraces the views of nationalists, such as supporters of the Nippon Kaigi. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a speech in Tokyo on March 8, 2019, praised Abe as follows: “Prime Minister Abe is a great hero to the grassroots, the populist, and the nationalist movement throughout the world. […] Prime Minister Abe was Trump before Trump.” Thus, right-wing hostility and opposition toward the incumbent government is muted. This too is one of the foundations of Abe’s power domestically and internationally.
The Trump factor
Given the importance of the United States to Japan since the end of WWII, it is not surprising that one of the criteria by which Japanese evaluate their prime minister is how well he “manages and handles” the American president. The role models to emulate were Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and his “Ron-Yasu” relationship with President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and his “George-Junichiro” relationship with President George W. Bush in the early 2000s. Abe has joined this pantheon of legends with his skillful positioning as Trump’s friend, ally, and golf partner. Other than Vladimir Putin (for reasons inexplicable to most) there is probably no other world leader who has established personal rapport with Trump comparable to what Abe has done.
This has required a tremendous amount of time, patience, energy, and effort on Abe’s part, and it seems to be paying off—at least for now. Although Trump has imposed nominal tariffs on Japanese aluminum and steel exports and has had Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, negotiate a bilateral agreement with Japan that tries to regain what the United States lost, especially on agricultural trade, by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump’s rhetoric on “getting tough” with Japan has been much louder than his actions. This could, of course, change on a dime if Trump were, for instance, to impose tariffs on Japanese auto exports to the United States on national security grounds invoking Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. And media accounts report that the Trump administration is demanding of Japan a four-fold increase, from $2 billion to $8 billion, in host nation support for the stationing of US military forces in Japan. If this is a serious goal, as opposed to an opening gambit in a negotiation, it has the potential of significantly changing the US-Japan security relationship as we know it. But for now, the continuity in the relationship under Trump and Abe has overshadowed the changes, despite what Trump threatened during his presidential campaign.
With Trump focusing on short-term “deals,” e.g., casino concessions, arms sales, and agricultural sales that can help him capture votes from the heartland of America in the 2020 presidential election, Abe is plotting a long-term strategy of how best to use Trump for his own and Japan’s advantage.
First, Trump’s trade war with China is clearly benefiting Japan. If US-China relations were amicable and cooperative, China and the United States would be embracing each other and trying to create a G2 world, leaving Japan as a peripheral player. But Trump’s demonizing China has forced Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership to seek friends and allies other than the United States. And what better friend to court than neighbor Japan, still the world’s third largest economy and leader in technology and manufacturing? In stark contrast to the period 2012-2017, when China felt it could rebuff Japan’s overtures to improve the bilateral relationship, it is now China that is eager to embrace Japan, at least as an economic partner and ally. There is now a flurry of activity in both countries to ensure that Xi’s state visit to Japan in April 2020 will be successful in forging a mutually beneficial future. Such a warming between Japan and China would not have been possible without the anti-China rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration.
Second, Trump’s embrace of Putin as a trusted friend has created the ideal environment for Abe to pursue his initiative to negotiate the return of at least two of the four “Northern Territory” islands under dispute and eventually to sign a peace treaty with Russia. President Barack Obama was not pleased with Abe’s persistent attempts to curry favor with Putin, and Obama explicitly and repeatedly expressed his displeasure to Abe. If Hillary Clinton had become president in 2017, she clearly would not have looked favorably on Abe consorting with Putin. But Trump’s warm relationship with Putin means that Abe has wide room to maneuver and to pursue his Russia initiatives without unwanted interference or opposition by the United States, even if Putin shows no interest of late in finding common ground with Abe, let alone making a deal on territory.
Third, Trump provides Abe a favorable environment to pursue another of his priorities as prime minister: revising the Constitution. This long-held goal of Abe has little chance of being realized at this point because it requires a two-thirds vote of both the upper and lower houses of the Diet as well as a majority vote in a national referendum. If Abe is serious about revising Article 9 of the Constitution, the best environment for him would be the following: 1) North Korea continues to develop its nuclear arsenal and missiles, threatening Japan’s security; 2) relations between Japan and South Korea continue to deteriorate, posing the long-term possibility of a nuclear-armed united Korean Peninsula that is hostile to Japan; 3) China continues to threaten Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands; and 4) the United States reduces its military presence in South Korea or in Japan, or Japanese perceive the United States to be unreliable as a security ally that will adhere to its treaty commitment to come to the defense of Japan. Each of these possibilities is explored below.
First, Trump’s “love affair” with Kim Jong-un appears to be unrequited, with Kim buying time to develop systematically his nuclear arsenal and missiles. Second, unlike the Obama administration, which expended considerable effort and political capital to encourage Japan and South Korea to reach an agreement on the “comfort women” dispute (achieved in December 2015 under the government of Park Geun-hye but abrogated in 2018 under the government of Moon Jae-in), the Trump administration has been reluctant to intervene except to pressure the South Korean government not to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between South Korea and Japan. Third, Trump’s concern about China as a challenge to the United States appears to be more focused on the economic competition than the military threat. Fourth, as mentioned above, if the Trump administration is serious about forcing South Korea and Japan to increase significantly their host nation support for American forces stationed in these two countries, this could lead to a sizable reduction of the American military presence in South Korea or Japan, or both, creating an environment in which more Japanese than at present might favor revising their Constitution and expanding their nation’s military capabilities. Although these considerations have led many LDP politicians not only to predict but also to wish for the re-election of Trump in 2020, what might appear to be favorable to Japan in the short term may not necessarily prove favorable in the long term. In particular, if Trump is re-elected to a second term, this will almost certainly result in a reduction of American engagement with and presence in Asia. The implications for Japan are profound.
When Steve Bannon visited Japan in March 2019, he reportedly conveyed the following three messages to political and business leaders: 1) Trump will almost certainly be re-elected for a second term as president in November 2020, so Japan should treat him well; 2) the LDP should change its party rules to allow Abe to serve a fourth three-year term as prime minister; and 3) with Trump as president until 2024 and with Abe as prime minister until 2024, the United States and Japan can cooperate to contain China. These messages were apparently greeted with wild applause by many of the LDP politicians who had gathered to hear Bannon speak.
There is much speculation in Japan about “post-Abe.” One scenario is that Abe will serve out his current third three-year term and step down in September 2021. A second is that, fearing becoming a lame duck, he will voluntarily step down in the fall of 2020, after the Tokyo Olympics, with the hope of handpicking his successor; so that he can retain influence even after stepping down. The names of potential successors have included former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kishida Fumio; former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru; Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Kato Katsunobu; Minister of Defense Kono Taro; Minister of Foreign Affairs Motegi Toshimitsu; and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide. Minister of the Environment Koizumi Shinjiro is often cited as a potential future prime minister, but not as immediate successor to Abe.
A third scenario along the lines Bannon suggested in March is also seriously being discussed. The logic is as follows: if Trump is re-elected as president in 2020, who among the Japanese political leaders is best equipped to “handle and manage” this most unorthodox and unpredictable of American presidents? Surely all the time, effort, and investment Abe has made to win Trump’s confidence and favor should not be thrown out the window in favor of a new, untested prime minister? Whether Abe has the psychological will or the physical stamina to serve a fourth three-year term as prime minister merits a separate discussion. But if it were to materialize, he would serve a total of 13 years—truly a momentous achievement in the annals of Japanese political history.
It is obviously premature to assess Abe’s legacy, since he has at least until September 2021—almost two more years—to remain as prime minister, but the following conclusions are possible.
First, Abe has been remarkably successful in staying in power and will certainly set longevity records that will be difficult to match by future Japanese prime ministers. The key factors for his success have been discussed above, but Abe’s skills as a politician and concentration of power in the Kantei, the skills and determination of his supporters (especially Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga), and the domestic and international environment have all contributed to his longevity as prime minister.
Second, Abe’s experience as prime minister in 2006-2007 gave him a first-hand understanding of what the office requires, and his time “in the wilderness” gave him the opportunity to derive lessons from his failed term and to apply those lessons so he could be more successful in his second attempt. In a society that normally penalizes severely those who fail and rarely gives them a second chance, Abe was fortunate in being the rare person provided a second chance.
Third, the lessons Abe learned during his time out of office focused on gaining control of information and shaping the environment to maximize his potential for success. This included gaining influence or control over the mass media, academia, government ministries, and senior bureaucrats, and enhancing the power of the Kantei, both by enlisting capable and influential individuals and by institutionalization of the NSC and the Personnel Affairs Bureau.
Fourth, Abe has been skillful in cultivating close relationships with world leaders, including those generally considered to be strongmen, autocratic, or dictatorial—including Putin, Erdoğan, Duterte, Modi, and Trump. (He also has capitalized on Xi’s eagerness for a resumption of normal relations, including summits that show Abe in the role of a statesman.) Coupled with his desire to raise Japan’s visibility in the world, this has resulted in Japan being perceived as playing a more prominent global role than at any time since the bubble period of the 1980s. In the most striking case of a bad relationship with a foreign leader, Abe has gone on the offensive against Moon Jae-in, seizing upon the deep unpopularity of South Korean policies to reassure the Japanese people that there is a way to strike back and prove that Japan is no longer a passive player.
Fifth, despite being the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, at this point Abe cannot claim major policy accomplishments that will leave a significant mark in the history books. Abenomics and the quest to end deflation, raise wages, strengthen the social welfare system, achieve gender equality, and realize structural reform to spur sustained economic growth remain unfulfilled. And Abe’s three stated policy priorities—revising the Constitution, resolving the Northern Territories issue with Russia and concluding a peace treaty, and bringing home the abductees from North Korea and concluding a peace treaty—are not likely to see success in the near term. Of course, Abe’s supporters might argue that precisely because these tasks remain unrealized, Abe should be given a fourth term as prime minister, until 2024, to achieve them.
By creating a “presidential” prime ministership, Abe has fundamentally strengthened the power of the office. As a consequence, domestic and foreign policies have become much more personalized (identified with Abe as prime minister and politician) and less institutionalized (identified with a government ministry or bureaucracy). Therefore, Japan’s relations with the United States are viewed primarily as flowing from the personal relationship between Abe and Trump rather than emanating from, e.g., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Similarly, Japan’s relations with Russia are centered on the Abe-Putin bond, with China on the Abe-Xi relationship, with India on the Abe-Modi bond, etc. And the bureaucratic apparatus providing the political support is seen as the Kantei (including the NSC) rather than the traditional ministries in Kasumigaseki. This arrangement is seen to be successful in part because Abe’s counterparts are also viewed to be strong leaders who make top-down political decisions, unencumbered by professional bureaucrats.
To what extent this mode of leadership will survive Abe’ prime ministership is an open question. Of course, with so much power now in the Kantei, Abe’s successors will benefit from having the resources to exercise leadership as few postwar prime ministers have been able to do. But depending on the personality, strengths and weaknesses, and preferences of future prime ministers, the degree of concentration of power in the Kantei may vary. What is clear is that Abe has turned out to be one of the most consequential prime ministers in postwar Japan, both in the length of his tenure and in his impact in strengthening the power of the prime minister and the Kantei. Whether this will result in significant policy outcomes remains to be seen. Abe has, at least, almost two years as prime minister to deliver on the outstanding issues. And depending on the outcome of the US presidential election in November 2020 and the political mood in Japan in 2021, a fourth term for Abe is not inconceivable. Abe himself may be the most surprised by this turn of events, given that when he resigned on September 26, 2007, after only one year in office, not even his most fervent supporters predicted that he would make such a successful comeback and go down in the textbooks as the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
*Glen S. Fukushima is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy assistant United States trade representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
2 John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017.