13 March 2017
Author: Editors, East Asia Forum
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has enjoyed an enviable record of political success and popularity since he launched his second shot at the country’s top job in 2012. He’s framed Abenomics as a plausible if incomplete attempt to revive the languishing economy; enjoyed success in the delivery of a revision to security laws that give Japan limited external military projection; and, recently, earned kudos from cozying up to Donald Trump to secure the alliance relationship.
With popularity ratings routinely over 60 per cent, Abe looked set for the long haul. On 5 March, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party changed its rules to allow the head of its party a third term, a move designed to secure Abe the top job until September 2021, symbolically until after Tokyo hosts the Olympics.
Yet Abe has always been a bit of a political enigma. His strong personal, deeply nationalist agenda that includes drastic reform of Japan’s pacifist constitution and membership of Nippon Kaigi (The Japan Conference), an ultra-right wing organisation, cuts across the grain of moderate mainstream sentiment in modern Japan. His nationalist sentiments are far enough beyond the conservative norm to have had him on the American watch list in the past. At the same time, his second term as prime minister has been characterised by a deft political pragmatism that has seen him respond positively to push-back on his visits to Yasukuni Shrine as offensive to Japan’s East Asian neighbours, accommodate concerns on security law reform, fulsomely embrace the US alliance relationship and negotiate his way around nudging his conservative rural political base towards agricultural reform, however limp-wristed.