- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Can Shinzo Abe Make Good on His Promises in Japan?

By Kunihiro Shimoji

January 15, 2015

In 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will continue to advance an ambitious foreign and domestic policy agenda to stimulate economic growth, foster energy security, and reform defense programs in Japan. Yet in order to deliver on promises made during the first two years of his government, Abe will need to rebuild public confidence not just in his policies but in himself.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Abe’s Komeito coalition won a landslide victory in December and secured a two-thirds majority in the parliament’s lower house. The election was held after Abe dissolved the lower house to see how the public viewed his economic policy agenda, particularly his consumption tax increase. Despite the election being decided heavily in Abe’s favor, polling both before and after the election revealed that the Japanese public did not necessarily support Abe’s policies. A pre-election poll conducted by Nikkei in December showed an even split between those approving and disapproving of the LDP, which suggests that a large number of Japanese are still skeptical about Abe’s policy agenda. Nikkei’s postelection poll revealed that 85% of the Japanese public believed the success of the coalition was largely a product of the weakness of the opposition party.

Public skepticism centers on three key questions about Abe’s policy agenda that he will need to address in 2015. First is Abe’s ability to deliver economic growth. Abenomics has been a central tenant of the prime minister’s domestic policy agenda, but the results have been mixed at best. For example, Japan’s GDP dropped by 1.9% after Abe’s consumption tax increase was introduced in April 2014. The country officially fell into a recession in November, and its debt-to-GDP ratio hit an all-time high of 227.2% in 2014. The Japanese public will be closely monitoring these trends in 2015. To move forward on his overarching agenda, Abe will need to rejuvenate the economy. Japan’s plummeting birthrate and aging population raise major demographic concerns that could further exacerbate efforts to stimulate economic growth.

Second, a majority of the public opposes Abe’s plan to restart nuclear power plants that were shut down following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Abe sees nuclear power as a base-load power source and a crucial way to help boost the economy. This has led him to push to restart two power plants, which passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety test last year. It will be crucial for Abe to gain public trust in and support for this initiative, which will pose a great challenge in 2015. Restarting nuclear power plants without public support could lead to a significant decline in his overall approving rating.

Finally, the Japanese public remains deeply skeptical of the direction of Abe’s defense policies. Abe believes the security environment surrounding Japan is growing increasingly tense due to threats posed by China and North Korea. This has led him to take steps to enhance national security. In 2015, Abe will focus on two major security reforms: (1) the revision of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines with the United States and (2) the development of legislation to enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense across a range of possible scenarios. The latter reform has been especially controversial because the Japanese public has raised concerns that revising laws to allow for collective self-defense could drag the country into future warfare.

Close coordination on these reforms with the United States will be critical. In developing the legal framework to enable collective self-defense, both Japanese and U.S. leaders must be on the same page with regard to their commitments and expectations for how much Japan can and cannot do under this legislation. If these details are worked out, Japan and the United States will be taking a major step forward in strengthening the alliance and maintaining strategic balance in the region.

Another foreign policy priority for Abe in 2015 will be improving Japan’s stagnant relationship with South Korea and strengthening defense cooperation between the two countries. In late 2014, Japan, South Korea, and the United States signed the long-awaited General Security of Military Information Agreement, which allows information sharing on North Korea. Japan must also enhance collaboration with partners in South and Southeast Asia on economic and defense activities, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Japan will face growing challenges throughout 2015 if it does not fully prioritize strong regional partnerships. Given his ambitious defense goals, Abe should deliver on economic reforms to work toward earning support for his broader agenda.

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This is one of 15 essays examining how 2015 will shape the economy, political systems, and geopolitical arena in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Download all 15 essays in PDF format or access them online below.

Kunihiro Shimoji was an Atlas Fellow from 2013 to 2014.

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