A Post-Abe Japan in the Reiwa Era

posted by Eleanor Shiori Hughes on September 10, 2020 - 2:14pm

On September 1st, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a virtual program titled “Japan After Abe: Legacy and Next Moves” in light of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden announcement to resign on August 28th due to chronic health issues. During the hour-long webinar, Dr. Michael J. Green, the Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS, led a discussion with a few of his other colleagues from CSIS for a wide-ranging and fruitful conversation on Abe’s resignation and what we can expect for his successor in shaping Japanese domestic politics and Japan’s role in the international arena. The virtual panel included Dr. Victor Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair; Matthew P. Goodman, Senior Vice President for Economics and Simon Chair in Political Economy; Nicholas Szechenyi, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Japan Chair; and Yuko Nakano, the Associate Director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership program. 

To start, Dr. John J. Hamre, the President and CEO of CSIS, made a quick preamble on Abe’s consequential tenure, as he was the longest-serving prime minister in modern Japanese history. He mentioned that this event marks the first time in his time at CSIS where they have dedicated an event outlining the departure of a world leader outside of the U.S. This truly speaks to Abe’s influence at-large because as Dr. Hamre noted, over the past few years, he has “transformed Japan’s role in the world, and transformed the way America thinks about Japan.”

A few minutes later, Dr. Green spoke on his personal experiences interacting with Abe (who at the time was the Chief Cabinet Secretary) while working as part of the National Security Council (NSC) for then-president George W. Bush as well as Abe's first term in office from 2006-2007. Moreover, he then recounted Abe’s unexpected resurgence in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which led to his election as Japanese prime minister once again starting in 2012. Dr. Green attributes Abe’s comeback to China’s aggression against the opposing Japanese political party. Shortly after taking office a second time, Abe spoke at a CSIS event in February 2013 and said the following: “Japan is not, and will never be, a Tier- two country.” In other words, so long as he is prime minister, Japan will play a monumental role in securing democratic norms and a rules-based international order in Asia and beyond. This, as Dr. Green noted, is why Abe resurrected the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, in 2017, which consists of India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. In addition, Abe should be credited for maintaining strong and firm bilateral relations with the U.S. to whom he introduced the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” framework, which many countries in the Asia Pacific have since embraced. This can be traced back to when Abe delivered his “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech to the Indian Parliament back in August 2007. 

After ending his opening remarks, Matthew Goodman first discussed Abenomics, which is Abe’s domestic economic agenda. According to Goodman, Abenomics meant to increase more flow of money into the economy; ramp up government spending, so as to bring about more demand for certain goods and services; and make reforms to expand the labor demographics in Japan. Though Abe can be lauded for incentivizing companies to incorporate more women into the workforce and removing some immigration-related barriers for foreign workers, these structural reforms have not singlehandedly alleviated some of Japan’s economic woes, most notably its aging population and many Japanese companies’ inability to catalyze more efficiency into the economy. On an international level, however, Goodman commended Abe for spearheading the initiative of establishing another free-trade agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018 after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017. In addition, through international forums such as hosting the G-20 last year in Osaka and increased economic exchanges with Southeast Asia, for example, Goodman pointed out that Abe has also promoted the importance of data governance and quality infrastructure. 

To turn it over to Dr. Cha, he briefly outlined some of the ongoing political, historical, and economic tensions between Japan and South Korea in recent years including the comfort-women issue, both countries' decision to remove each other from their respective "white lists" in 2019, and the possible termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). But after the conservative-leaning Park Geun-Hye's impeachment in 2017, which prompted a change in government to a progressive-leaning Moon Jae-in, Dr. Cha illustrated that many in Korea observe any action that Abe took in regards to what might be considered as positive engagement with Korea as a means for Abe to elevate his political ambitions on a domestic level. On the other hand, to many of them, any move Abe made that has negatively impacted Seoul is an uncloaking of his true sentiments towards a given situation. In response to Abe’s recent announcement, Seoul sent well-wishes to him, which is promising because it was also accompanied with their willingness to promote dialogue, along with peaceful relations, with Tokyo. And though Dr. Cha said that he remains cautiously sanguine in both countries improving relations in the post-Abe era, he also noted Seoul's decision not to attend a ministerial meeting with the US and Japanese defense ministers in Guam this past week, which signals a strong--and quite possibly, favorable--message to both Beijing and Pyongyang, as they too remain watchful on how Japan’s change in government will affect the overall security posture of the Indo-Pacific region. 

Nicholas Szechenyi then delved a bit into Abe’s priority to propose a constitutional reform on Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which stipulates that Japan cannot participate in any military engagements that are offensive in nature, but can only use its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) for the purpose of defending its homeland. One interesting point he illustrated is that rather than focusing on eliminating the article in its entirety, Abe intended to add a clause that would officially acknowledge the existence of the SDF. Though this remains a debate even among some of Abe’s possible successors, it is extremely difficult to make this kind of revision because it would entail a voting process through both houses of the Japanese Diet, along with a public referendum. Going forward, Szechenyi suggested that the next administration will continue to maintain--if not elevate--Abe’s agenda to contribute to the overall stability of the Indo-Pacific region through mutual defense cooperation with other democratic nations given the amount of security challenges that continue to unravel.  

As the last panelist, Yuko Kawano illustrated the election process for Abe’s successor and possible contenders. At this time, we know that since the LDP holds the majority in both houses of the Japanese Diet, the next prime minister will also become the LDP’s president. With Japan’s parliamentary system, Abe’s successor will be elected based on who can garner the majority of 535 LDP votes, 394 of which are from diet members and 141 from prefectural LDP leaders on September 14th. As of now, names of contenders include Yoshihide Suga, Fumio Kishida, and Shigeru Ishiba. Kawano noted that since Abe’s tenure was set to continue until September 30th, 2021, his successor will serve the remainder of Abe’s term, and there will then be a party convention. It is also important to remember that though the lower-house, or the House of Representative, election is not until next year, there is a chance that they may convene what is known as a snap-election sooner than next year. 

It goes without saying that Abe has been instrumental in advancing Japan’s status as a major foreign policy player in the Asia-Pacific, and that of the world. And now, I’d like to ask this broad yet fundamental question that I addressed in my first published article from last June: In light of the change of the era name that accompanied the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito last year, is it a mere coincidence that the new era name of Reiwa rhymes with the Japanese word for peace (heiwa) or was this carefully thought out? As I said last year, I do not have the audacity to answer this question on my own, and that remains unchanged even with Abe’s departure. That being said, time will tell if his successor will help me answer this question in the near future.