India and Japan always seemed as different as chalk from cheese but looking beyond the cultural face of the two countries there are many similarities in social and political processes. The Modi government here, and the Abe Shinzo government in Japan have come out of a very similar political environment and share a political vision. It’s not by accident that Modi and Abe follow each other on Twitter. Abe was quick to congratulate Modi who, in turn, promised to take the India-Japan relationship to a new level.
Prime Minister Abe, unlike Modi, comes from a political dynasty, and is the member of the Liberal Democratic Party, which much like Congress here, has been in power for much of the post-war period but now has had to ally with coalition partners to form governments.
The Abe government, a coalition much like the BJP led coalition, came to power with a landslide victory. Abe’s personal approval ratings were over 70 per cent. The people, disenchanted with indecisive leaders, wanted someone to turn Japan around particularly its economy. Abe promised to fire three arrows: monetary stimulus, fiscal stimulus and broad reforms to revitalise the economy. His actual performance is a cautionary tale for us.
Abe, and his government, have tinkered with the system but there have been no far-reaching structural reforms. Abe proclaimed, “ Without action there can be no growth”, but his actions haven’t been really innovative. Despite the Fukushima tragedy he continues to think that nuclear power is viable and safe for Japan. Last year while speaking at the New York Stock Exchange he said, “I am thinking of creating a new structure under which companies wanting to demonstrate frontier technologies would operate under zero regulations, provided they independently take measures to ensure safety.” This, when the gravity of the Fukushima accident was aggravated because regulatory mechanisms did not work.
In fact, more than the economy Abe has concentrated on his nationalist agenda which has been internally divisive and has exacerbated international rivalries. He cultivates his support base by his unabashed defence of Japan’s wartime actions and in seemingly taking a tough posture with China. Far from bringing new ideas to the table, Abe is regurgitating old slogans and further degrading an already fragile political atmosphere.
Security and a strong military posture are key features of Abe’s vision for a new Japan. This has meant creating new decision-making bodies that operate under his control -- a National Security Council, and announcing a National Security Strategy – and strengthening up defence, particularly in the island chain that includes Okinawa and the contested Senkaku islands. The Chinese claim the latter and call them Diaoyu.
But, more crucially he has strengthened secrecy laws, despite popular opposition, to make it easier to punish whistleblowers. In part these legal changes were brought in under US pressure. All this to move Japan from 'passive pacifism' to an 'active pacifism'.
But the key arrow that he is still unable to fire is his goal of changing Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. The article renounces war as an instrument of diplomacy and has become the central symbol of Japanese political debates. Its supporters see in it the renunciation of the pre-war drive to build a colonial empire and create a militarily dominated society: a drive that wrought death and destruction in it’s path. The post-war period has been built around a rejection of this past.
Abe sees the article as hobbling Japan, preventing it from developing as a ‘normal’ country. His answer to difficult situations is sounding tough. All opinion surveys show that he lacks popular support for this.
He first set about trying to amend the Constitution but this is difficult, as it requires not only two-third’s support in both the Upper and Lower Houses, but also approval by a national referendum. This was not possible so he took the bureaucratic route: set up an advisory panel that has advised him, in a report issued last month, that Article 9 can be interpreted in a way to allow for collective self-defence so far banned under the Constitution.
Hasebe Yasuo, Waseda University Professor of Constitutional Law, in a discussion in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, succinctly described this interpretation as a “jaw dropper” because, in effect, he said, it allowed the government to say that what it called ‘pitch black’ can now be called “white”.
Abe’s advisors don't see it that way. Shinichi Kitaoka, a key advisor to Abe, reportedly argued, in the 1990’s, that ruling parties can have a time-limited dictatorship till the next elections. Only the next elections should be a check on them. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, not known for subtlety, put it more crassly; constitutional change “should be done quietly. One day everybody woke up and found that the Weimar Constitution had been changed, had been replaced by the Nazi Constitution. It changed without anyone noticing. Maybe we can learn from that. No hullabaloo.”
And on February 13, 2014, Abe told a Lower House Budget Committee that he is the “ultimate arbiter” of affairs concerning constitutional interpretation.
Prof. Hasebe argues that Abe’s ‘hurried politics’ is dangerous precisely because it does not seek to consult public opinion and takes decisions that appear to be tough but can actually raise tensions and lead to unintended consequences.
This agenda of denial has roiled the international waters in Japan’s neighbourhood at a time when nuanced diplomacy is called for and internal challenges whether over environmental protection or old age care, are papered over in aggressive posturing.
Abe’s politics of confrontation, of a narrow sense of ‘security’, and using bureaucratic mechanisms to undermine democratic decision has served narrow interests, not bringing about the change that people hoped.
The author is professor of Modern Japanese History, Delhi University (Retd)