'Japan is back.' Can Shinzo Abe stay the course?

Japan's prime minister is credited with reviving its deflated economy. He's also accused of setting Japan on a collision course with China. The reality is more complex.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in Tokyo during a ceremony that wrapped up the 2013 trading year on the Tokyo Stock Exchange Dec. 30.

In September 2007, Shinzo Abe must have thought he had blown his chance to alter the course of Japan's postwar politics.

A year earlier, he had become the country's youngest prime minister and the first to be born after the end of World War II. But after just 12 months, he was forced to step down.

Fast-forward to today, and Mr. Abe is relishing a second opportunity to hold Japan's highest office. He has been credited with breathing life into Japan's deflated economy; for the first time in years, observers are no longer talking about Japan in exclusively negative tones.

But his first year back in office has been Janus-faced. Abe, a nationalist whose sights are set on changing the country's war-renouncing Constitution, is accused of setting Japan on a collision course with China over a territorial dispute and raising tensions in the region with a visit to a controversial war shrine.

His statement last month that China and Japan are analogous to pre-World War I Germany and Britain raised more concerns of saber rattling in the region.

There is truth in the labels most frequently pinned to Abe's political persona: nationalist, conservative, right-wing, hawkish. But those descriptions only go so far in explaining his philosophy, say those who have closely followed his career from executive at Kobe Steel to politician and prime minister.

Abe, they say, is a product of the postwar era of growth and optimism whose time, after a false start seven years ago, has finally arrived. His agenda is driven by a desire to recapture the spirit of national pride that spurred the country's transformation from pariah to global economic power.

His goal, they add, is not to see a return to the dark days of 1930s militarism, but for Japan to finally join the club of "normal" democratic states – able to defend its interests at home and abroad, with force if necessary.

Rejuvenation for Abe – and Japan

By the time Abe limped from office in 2007, citing health issues, voters appeared tired of his Liberal Democratic Party's dominance of postwar politics. Two years later, the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power in a landslide, ending more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted LDP rule.

"Abe can't stand the thought of Japan losing its international clout or the stamina to see through economic growth," says a close aide, who asked not to be named. "Yet he became the epitome of Japan's declining power when he chose to step down as prime minister after just a year. He and Japan became mirror images – a weak country and a weak leader."

But the six-year gap between his first and second terms as prime minister served him well. Abe embarked on a listening tour of Japan and turned to new drugs for his health. The public enthusiasm that had greeted the DPJ's arrival in office all but evaporated. The party was seen as weak in the face of Chinese provocations, guilty of alienating the United States over botched attempts to relocate a contentious Marine Corps base, and incompetent in its handling of the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear crisis.

The conditions were in place for a reinvigorated Abe to make his comeback. By allying his personal rehabilitation with that of Japan, Abe appealed to voters who had grown weary of their country being written off as an economic has-been, consigned to a future playing regional second fiddle to China. Having endured years of hardship and failure, Japan's people were perfectly placed to bounce back, he said. They, like him, deserved a second chance.

That message resonated with his party and the public. After two decades of stagnation, the world's third biggest economy is stirring again, prompting Abe to declare on a visit to Washington: "Japan is back."

Share prices have risen by about two-thirds in the year since the LDP was reelected, the yen has weakened, and economic growth is outpacing that of other Group of Seven nations. Abe's high approval ratings have held firm, despite public opposition to his plans to restart nuclear reactors and the introduction of a controversial state secrets law in late 2013.

He was even credited with securing the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, telling the International Olympic Committee last September of the wonderment he felt as a 10-year-old watching the capital's first summer Games in 1964.

Abe's worldview develops

Abe's nostalgia for that period is significant for other reasons. Born in 1954 into an affluent family in Nagato, in southwestern Japan, he grew up as Japan made the transformation from defeated outcast to economic powerhouse. He watched as Japan replaced wartime austerity with a dramatic rise in living standards and militarist expansionism with a constitutional commitment never to "use force as a means of settling international disputes." With the 1964 Olympics, Japan's international rehabilitation was complete.

The high-growth era of the 1960s is the setting for Abe's favorite film, the 2012 award-winning "Always San-chome no Yuhi" (Always: Sunset on Third Street), which depicts a time of optimism when Tokyo's skyline was being transformed and its residents relished hosting the Olympics. "Abe's generation is intuitively optimistic about the future and is proud of Japan as the highest achiever not just in Asia, but also in the non-Western world," the aide says.

It was in that early postwar period, too, that a young Abe formed a view of his country's relationship with the world that he has carried through to this day.

A black-and-white photograph from the era shows Abe, then a kindergartner, seated on the lap of his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, whose beliefs about Japan's place in the postwar world order would have a profound influence on his grandson – more so than those of Abe's own father, Shintaro Abe, who served as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986.

"It is as if Abe sprang from his grandfather's forehead a full-blown conservative," says Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo. "Kishi's influence as a patriarchal figure is obvious; Abe constantly refers to him with reverence while he rarely mentions his low-key, easygoing father in public."

Mr. Kishi, who served in the wartime cabinet of Gen. Hideki Tojo, was arrested by the Allied Occupation forces for suspected war crimes but was never charged. He went on to become Japan's prime minister in 1957.

In Abe's eyes, his grandfather remained a misunderstood figure, particularly among those angered by his decision to strengthen the military alliance with the US in 1960 with revisions to their bilateral security treaty. Others railed against Kishi's plans to begin what his grandson hopes to finish – revision of the postwar Constitution.

In his 2006 bestseller, "Utsukushii Kuni e" (Toward a Beautiful Country), Abe talks of the stigma of being Kishi's grandson. "Since my childhood, in my eyes, my grandfather was a sincere statesman who only thought about the future of this country," he wrote.

Abe might say the same about himself. According to those closest to him, his motives, like those of his grandfather, generate similar misunderstandings.

"I think that Abe's worldview is profoundly influenced by his early childhood experiences as grandson of Nobusuke Kishi at the time of Kishi's prime ministership and resignation following the mass demonstrations against the revised US-Japan security treaty," says Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a historian of modern Japan and Korea at the Australian National University in Canberra. "Abe was clearly very aware as a child of public hostility toward his grandfather and family. His own political career can be seen as an attempt to vindicate his grandfather's policies," she says.

Provocateur in chief?

It is not hard to see why those who harbor bitter memories of their country's militarist past – Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and occupied parts of China and Southeast Asia from 1931 until the end of the war – view Abe through a similarly critical lens. Many saw his December visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where 14 Class A Japanese war criminals are honored among 2.5 million war dead, as a reckless indulgence by a man bent on proving his nationalist credentials to like-minded LDP colleagues who helped him win the party's presidency in 2012.

Factor in the recently unveiled five-year defense plan, complete with new fighter planes, amphibious assault vehicles, and surveillance drones, and in Abe, his critics claim, Japan has a leader spoiling for a fight with an equally aggressive China.

At home, Abe has long promised to revise the US-written Constitution to allow the self-defense forces to play a more active role overseas, including coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and wants schools to teach patriotism and a more benign appraisal of Japan's militarist past.

But insiders say that to brand Abe an unreconstructed nationalist is to ignore the nuances in his thinking and his capacity for pragmatism.

Like his grandfather, Abe's yearning for the values of loyalty and cultural uniqueness works in tandem with a strong commitment to the Japan-US alliance. Aides say he is baffled by the nationalist moniker. What is nationalist, so his thinking goes, about the contrite Japan of the postwar period becoming a "normal" nation, equipped to defend itself and its allies in an increasingly unstable region? Japan has traditionally kept military spending at or below 1 percent of gross domestic product. Even factoring in the planned increase, which will take it just over that limit, Japan's defense budget pales beside that of China.

"To turn Japan into a normal nation is not luxury but a necessity for Abe," says Tomohiko Taniguchi, a councilor at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, who points out that under Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan must withdraw its forces even if an ally is under attack.

Abe is unbowed in his enthusiasm for constitutional reform, but he has a keen sense of the domestic obstacles in its path. His confidants say privately that he accepts he has yet to build a domestic consensus for revision of "pacifist" Article 9. He has also avoided further criticism of his views on history by honoring previous governments' apologies for Japan's wartime conduct and the use of sex slaves.

"Abe is an 'idealist,' not a pragmatist, at heart, in the sense that he is committed to trying to carry out his agenda," says Professor Morris-Suzuki. "But he is a realist in the sense of knowing that he has to move very cautiously in order to put this agenda in place. He is particularly acutely aware of possible negative reactions from the US. He chooses his words very carefully. "

It remains to be seen how long Abe can suppress his ideological instincts. The longer tensions continue with China over the East China Sea islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, the harder it will be for him to step back should an accident or misjudgment turn the diplomatic spat into something more sinister.

"Remember that Abe's worldview appears to be shared to varying degrees by many, perhaps a healthy majority of LDP politicians, and a good number of opposition members," says Mr. Okumura at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. "And they did not have the benefit of having a politically towering grandfather to look to for guidance."

During his second effort as leader, Abe's grand project to remodel Japan, with revisions to the US-written Constitution at its center, is gaining momentum. It is a prospect that alarms defenders of the country's postwar commitment to pacifism, but it is safe to say it would delight his grandfather.

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