The Blog

After Abe

Japan's prime minister quits. What does he leave behind?

12:47 PM, Sep 14, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Amending Article 9 (the peace plank) of Japan's constitution would mark a huge step toward greater alliance cooperation. But even without constitutional reform, the Koizumi-Abe years saw a major upgrading of U.S.-Japan security links. On missile defense, democracy promotion, curbing weapons proliferation, and anti-terrorism efforts, the two countries are much closer today than they were in early 2001. As a former Bush administration official puts it, "Japan has come a long, long way in a relatively short period of time. It's really an extraordinary transformation."

The alliance did hit some rocky shoals this year over a perceived U.S. policy drift on North Korea. Tokyo worries that American diplomats are now appeasing Pyongyang to solve the nuclear problem while neglecting the matter of those Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. There is always suspicion that the U.S. may become overly deferential to China. Meanwhile, Japan still lacks a comprehensive national security strategy and must overcome legal barriers to collective self-defense.

Abe's most likely successor is the foreign minister, Taro Aso, another staunch conservative. With his emphasis on "universal values such as freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law," Aso reflects a nascent trend in Japanese foreign policy. "While not so openly assertive and high profile in [their] defense of human rights as the Americans or Europeans," writes National Bureau of Asian Research president Kenneth Pyle, "the Japanese nevertheless have quietly made these values an important principle in their recent diplomacy with other Asian nations."

That said, Aso, who turns 67 this month, does not appear to have a wide support network within the LDP, and his ascendance is hardly guaranteed. Whoever succeeds Abe will be tasked with rejuvenating domestic economic reform, which has stalled. Koizumi took an active role in getting banks to deal with non-performing loans. He also helped to accelerate corporate restructuring and improve corporate governance. The next prime minister, says Lincoln, should continue Japan's transition toward a private sector that relies more on capital markets and less on banks.

On the trade front, Japan is slowly emerging from its traditional protectionism. In April, Abe signed a landmark free trade deal with Thailand. Tokyo is also finalizing an agreement with ASEAN and negotiating pacts with Australia, South Korea, India, and others. But the Japanese have been reluctant to slash the agricultural subsidies beloved by their well-cosseted farmers. This remains a stubborn impediment to any U.S.-Japan free trade agreement.

Tokyo's biggest long-term challenge is demography. Its population is projected to shrink dramatically by 2050 and even more dramatically by 2100. This will strain the social-welfare system and weaken Japanese economic power. Awkward questions abound: Will Japan once again raise the retirement age? Will it reduce pension benefits? Will it increase female labor participation? Will it permit a larger influx of foreign workers? Japan will certainly need a more open, liberalized economy. But unless fertility patterns radically change, future economic growth is uncertain.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, Japan has become more conservative about its security. Given the rise of China and the erratic menace of North Korea, it is hard to imagine any serious lurch back to the pacifist left. But that doesn't mean revising Article 9 is an urgent public concern: A March 2007 poll found that less than 8 percent of Japanese thought constitutional reform should be a government priority. And if Japanese politics reverts to the factionalism and instability of the pre-Koizumi era, Tokyo would find it more difficult to maintain a consistent, coherent foreign policy.

On the other hand, Japan may be gradually shifting toward a more conventional two-party political structure based on ideology: with one main center-left party (the DPJ) and one main center-right party (the LDP). If such a shift occurs, Japan could undergo a monumental realignment. Ozawa's intentions are unclear. But he and other DPJ members have, at least temporarily, politicized the U.S. alliance.

Which brings us back to the anti-terrorism law. It passed the Diet in 2001 and has been renewed twice. Thus far, Ozawa has refused to extend it again. Japan's participation is not merely symbolic: Pakistani ships rely on Japanese maritime vessels for their refueling needs. A hasty retreat from Afghanistan would damage Japan's international credibility and complicate the American-led mission. "If Japan decides not to continue this operation, you will basically knock Pakistan out of the coalition," U.S. ambassador Tom Schieffer recently told an audience in Washington.