Jeffery Hornung thumbnail photoBy Jeffrey W. Hornung

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reflecting with Foreign Affairs (July/August 2013) on his short, first tenure as premier, remarked “when I served as prime minister last time, I failed to prioritize my agenda. I was eager to complete everything at once, and ended my administration in failure.” The dominant narrative during Abe’s second, and current, administration is that, unlike the one-year (mostly forgettable) administrations that preceded him, Abe’s has been successful.  While there is no doubt that Abe is succeeding in passing numerous initiatives, there is a question of whether Abe is, in fact, doing too much, too quickly. With support rates sagging and internal party discontent rising, Abe needs to remember why he failed the last time and reassess his agenda and approach to governing.

Prior to Abe’s second administration, Japan was suffering from not just unstable changes in leadership, but a twisted Diet, whereby the two houses of the Diet were controlled by different parties. This led to a situation where nothing much was accomplished legislatively. The Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) victories in the December 2012 and July 2013 elections—aided by its coalition with the New Komei Party—assured Abe of the largest number of seats in both houses. And with Abe determined to govern by “decisive politics,” he returned to the premiership with a resolve to make significant changes to Japan’s economic, security, and domestic policies.

By most accounts, Abe appears to have been quite successful. Just under 20 months in office, Abe’s activism has resulted in—among other items—the announcement of Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), introduction of the ‘Abenomics’ economic program and the fleshing out of its composite “three arrows,” passage of a controversial state secrets law meant to enact stricter punishments for government leaks, drafting of Japan’s first National Security Strategy and establishment of a National Security Council, and most recently, the reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution to allow the Self-Defense Forces to exercise collective self-defense. Altogether, according to a July 20 Nikkei Shimbun article, the Abe administration has been able to pass 97% of the bills it submitted to the Diet during the regular session that adjourned in June. Peppered in between this legislative activism has been Abe criss-crossing the globe, including being the keynote speaker at both the World Economic Forum and the Shangri La Dialogue. Abe has travelled so much that after he visits Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in September, he will become Japan’s most travelled premier (at 49 countries), overtaking Junichiro Koizumi who travelled to 48 over the course of roughly 5 ½ years.

This success, however, comes at a price. Abe’s decisive politics, while successful in garnering results, has ruffled many in the Diet, including his own LDP. At issue is his tendency to dominate and not give due consideration to opposing viewpoints or make considerable outreach efforts to explain the policies. This sentiment has been increasing in the LDP and the New Komei Party and appeared to come to a head in the collective self-defense debate. According to LDP insiders, Abe made a deal to reshuffle the cabinet in the fall in exchange for collective self-defense support. This offer fell on supportive ears because there are many politicians in the party that are eager for a cabinet or party post. The longer they wait, the more their discontent grows. Promising reshuffle was therefore an important card Abe could play to gain their support. The problem is, this card is playable only once. If he does the reshuffle properly, he will quiet some of his inner-LDP critics. But if he mishandles it, discontent will continue, or worse, grow.

This matters because Abe’s policies have strained his public support. The collective self-defense debate appears to have been a tipping point. All public opinion polls across the political spectrum show a considerable drop in his support rates compared to the previous poll by that outlet: Asahi Shimbun 44% → 42% (-2); Sankei Shimbun-48.7%  → 45.6% (-3.1); Kyodo News-52.4%  → 47.8% (-4.3); Tokyo Shimbun– 51%  → 44.6% (-6.4); Yomiuri Shimbun-57%  → 48% (-9); and JNN– 63.3%  → 52.4% (-10.9).

These drops matter. Not only is Abe facing discontent in his party, but the public is increasingly growing unsupportive. This has got to worry Abe because looming ahead are further TPP negotiations and decisions about tariffs, a decision to raise the consumption tax to 10% in October 2015, decisions about when and where to restart nuclear power plants against a tide of strong opposition, and a decision about when to submit the legislation meant to clarify specifics to the collective self-defense changes. All of these promise polarizing debates.

No one can criticize Abe for not exerting leadership or failing to pass legislation. Yet, Abe should revisit the lessons learned from his failed first administration. It is hard to point to a clear prioritization in Abe’s current agenda. Yes, he has been successful, but his swiftness and apparent lack of sufficient explanations with the public and stakeholders in his party are hurting him. With a rising amount of LDP discontent and declining public support, it behooves Abe to reconsider the speed in which he is pushing policies and prioritize his agenda. Understandably, Abe wants to strike when the (electoral majority) iron is hot, not knowing when the political tides will turn against him. But at the rate he is going, he will become the victim of his success.


The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of APCSS, the U.S. Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.