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Shinzo Abe at a crossroads

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With media polls showing approval ratings for the Cabinet falling from over 70 percent upon its inauguration four months ago to the lower 40 percent level, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be at a crossroads.

The plummeting popularity may be ascribed largely to failures in Abe’s selection of Cabinet ministers and party executives. He appointed a number of his longtime friends as well as those who had contributed materially to his election as president of the Liberal Democratic Party. The prime minister’s office and the Cabinet are packed with some of “the best students in class” who enjoy Abe’s favor. There are no politicians in the true sense of the word.

Those failures in personnel selection are partly responsible for the problems involving Cabinet members and party officials. Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Ha-kuo Yanagisawa is under fire for describing women as “child-bearing machines” in a public speech. Others have also come under attack for making improper statements. Meanwhile, the minister for administrative reform has resigned over political funding irregularities.

Also to blame is the way Abe is handling his political agenda. His key policies lack appeal because he hasn’t explained them in detail. The goals are clearly declared, but the steps to achieve them are absent. He is long on rhetoric and short on substance. Abe calls for constitutional reform, but it is unclear how he will deliver on that campaign promise — a factor that has contributed to his falling approval ratings.

The fact remains, though, that the transition from the Koizumi administration to the Abe administration represents a historic shift in Japanese politics.

The previous administration, which derived its strength largely from the personality of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, pushed reforms in specific areas, such as the privatization of the postal services and the Japan Highway Public Corp. Koizumi practiced “theatrical politics,” using grandiose political methods that appealed to popular sentiment.

By contrast, the Abe administration signifies a return to mainstream conservative politics, as shown by his unambiguous commitment to constitutional revision and education reform. Abe practices the “politics of the parliamentary Cabinet,” centered on coordination and cooperation with the governing LDP.

Thus there are distinctive differences between Koizumi and Abe. If Koizumi was a presidential-type prime minister, Abe is a parliamentary Cabinet-type leader.

In the field of diplomacy, Koizumi created tensions with China and South Korea, and effectively closed the door to talks with their top leaders by making annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Soon after taking office, Abe put the Yasukuni issue on the shelf, so to speak, and visited Beijing and Seoul, breaking the deadlock in Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors. In January, he attended the East Asia Summit in Cebu, Philippines, taking a major step toward the revival of Asian diplomacy. He also visited European countries, including Britain and France. In addition, he sent Foreign Minister Taro Aso to Central Asia.

Thus Abe has moved toward full-scale development of Japanese diplomacy, which had lost momentum under the Koizumi administration. Abe deserves much credit for taking the diplomatic initiative.

In the area of domestic policy, Abe pushed two long-pending bills through the Diet during an extraordinary session in December. One established the new Fundamental Law of Education; the other created the Defense Ministry by upgrading the Defense Agency. Both laws mark first steps toward the return of politics to the conservative mainstream.

Looking ahead, the foremost political question for the Abe administration is how to win July’s Upper House election.

In the regular Diet session, which convened in late January, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has seized the initiative by seizing on a verbal gaffe by a Cabinet minister. The DPJ is stepping up its attacks on the Abe administration over hot-button issues such as economic disparities in Japanese society — a “negative legacy” from the Koizumi administration. The largest opposition group is also taking the administration to task over the sharp fall in Cabinet approval ratings. A power struggle is developing in Japan’s political world with a view to April’s local elections and the upcoming Upper House poll.

It is too early to predict the outcome of the Upper House vote, however, it can be said that the election prospects allow no optimism for the Abe administration. The political situation will change greatly depending on the election outcome.

If the LDP and coalition partner Komeito retain their majority in the Upper House, internal rivalry schisms will appear in the DPJ — a development that could lead to the resignation of party president Ichiro Ozawa. If, on the other hand, the coalition loses its majority, the administration’s political standing at home and abroad will decline significantly. But it is unlikely that Abe will be forced to resign because the ruling parties hold a majority in the Lower House. Moreover, behind-the-scenes moves concerning the next administration will intensify in the LDP.

Still, it is only four months since the Abe administration made its debut. Setbacks at the outset of an administration are not irreversible. What Abe should do now is add some color to the banner of mainstream conservative politics. He might be criticized as a “rightist” or a “nationalist,” but unless he transcends such criticism, he won’t be able to solidify the foundation of his administration. Underpinning his proposal to create a “beautiful Japan” are the historical and cultural traditions that form the basis of Japan’s identity and the innovative spirit in which pioneers of old carried out the Taika Reform (645) and the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Abe hails from the western prefecture of Yamaguchi, which was formerly called “Choshu.” The political history of modern Japan shows that men from Choshu achieved great things by virtue of perseverance. I strongly hope that Abe, a Choshu man who inherited this virtue, will come through the difficult political situation he faces today.