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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Japan: Challenges before Abe

Sunday 23 December 2018

by Rajaram Panda

Following his successful re-election as the President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on September 20, 2018, a historic third term, thereby securing continuance as the Prime Minister of Japan for three more years, the first task for Abe Shinzo was to revamp his Cabinet. In this exercise, prioritising stability was the main focus and in doing so, Abe retained key Ministers in the reshuffle while rewarding allies. Abe retained linchpins of his administration, which he called the “foundation” and retained the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, and Foreign Minister Taro Kono. In his 19-member Cabinet, he roped in 12 new lawmakers who never had any portfolio before, the highest figure for such individuals during his administration. These new members inducted to the Cabinet belong to other party factions whose support helped Abe’s election victory in September.

There seems to be one aberration in Abe’s reshuffle exercise. Abe has been advocating participation of more women in the work front and supporting a larger role by women in all walks of life. However, only one woman, Satsuki Katayama, finds place as the Regional Revitalisation and Female Empowerment Minister. This showed that Abe’s “womenomics” was a casualty because of factionalism in Japanese politics and Abe had to admit that women politicians are underrepresented in the updated Cabinet. This explains why Katayama was the sole woman and the lowest female representation in his Cabinet since he returned to power in December 2012. Abe reposes high hopes on high-profile lawmaker Katayama, though.

Abe also reorganised the line-up of the executive members of the LDP. As the LDP gears up for the key Upper House elections the coming summer wherein the main focus shall be to pass through a constitutional amendment proposal so that the status of the Self-Defense Forces could be formalised, he gravitated heavily towards his longtime allies and friends in his exercise of shaking the party executive posts.

The new faces in the Cabinet included senior lawmakers belonging to each faction, which demonstrated Abe rewarding for their loyal backing in the September election, even at the expense of experience and competence. This included Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya, Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama, and Mitsuhiro Miyakoshi, Minister in charge of Abe’s “dynamic engagement of all citizens” policy. Even without adequate experience, Abe hoped that the new recruits shall capitalise on their long political career in honing further their expertise and thus contribute to make the Cabinet a group of professionals. Put briefly, four Ministers hail from the faction led by Aso, three each from pro-Abe factions, namely, led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

One interesting fact that needs to be noted is that despite former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba having challenged him in the September election, Abe included one lawmaker from Ishiba’s faction in his Cabinet, third term lawmaker Takashi Yamashita as the new Justice Minister, replacing Yoko Kamikawa, one of the two female Ministers from the last Cabinet. Another noted omission from the list selected by Abe for his Cabinet was Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This could be because the junior Koizumi had vocally criticised Abe over his cronyism allegations and voted for Ishiba in the election and therefore lost a berth in the reshuffled Cabinet.

 Other prominent lawmakers chosen or retained for important party posts included Nikai and Kishida. Also figured former Health Minister Katsunobu Kato, who was appointed Chairman of the decision-making General Council, in place of Wataru Takeshita, who supported Ishiba in the race. Akira Amari, a former Economic Revitalisation Minister, was “reinstated” to the administration’s inner sanctum by being named Chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Committee, one of the party’s four key posts. The roles of both Kato and Amari could be crucial in strengthening Abe’s grip on the party. In particular, Kato’s role is going to be very important because as the General Council Chairman, he shall preside over the party’s key internal discussion over constitutional amendment in the coming months. As said earlier, Abe’s ultimate goal is to revise Article 9 of the Constitution and therefore he seeks consensus on how to revise the national charter, which remains untouched since its adoption more than 70 years ago. Kato has to ensure that the party and its allies are all on board on the issue of amending the Constitution before the proposal is placed before the extraordinary session that is expected to run through mid-December. This issue still remains tricky as consensus remains eluded and Kato’s challenge is going to be bigger than expected as Abe expects him to build consensus on this issue.

The reshuffle also followed what is called in Japan “Cabinet post waiting list” (Nyukaku taiki gumi), a concept in vogue in the 1970s, which means the Prime Minister arbitrarily distributed Cabinet positions among members of influential intraparty factions, and which is what has been reflected in Abe’s portfolio allocation. If this is the basis of portfolio distribution reminiscent of the pattern that was followed in the 1970s, then Abe’s capacity to tackle critical issues such as the graying population, growing government debt and a shaky public social security system will not be on test. Katsuyuki Yakushiji, Professor of Political Science at Toyo University, observes: “It appears Cabinet posts have been automatically distributed based on whose turn it is.” The fact that 12 of 19 Cabinet members were handed over berths for the first time, the largest ever number for an Abe Cabinet, testify to the above observation. Most of the new inductees had been effectively “foreordained” for the posts by their factional bosses.

The new Cabinet seems reminiscent of Abe’s first Cabinet in 2006 after winning a landslide in the party presidential election. At that time, Abe doled out several Cabinet posts to those who supported him during the campaign. Soon, four of his Ministers were hit by scandals and forced to resign, critically wakening Abe’s first administration, which ended after less than a year with his own resignation. This time around, Abe runs risk of displeasing many LDP members of his own faction who were expecting Cabinet posts and could be potential destabilisers if Abe’s popularity ever plummets. At the time of reshuffle, Abe’s popularity was not under threat as the LDP scored over others but the future could be uncertain. If Abe’s strategy is just to remain in power and cement his grip over the party, reforming the country could be a casualty.


Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle throws up many critical questions that he has to grapple with and need to answer to the people. The first question that could confront Abe is how he is going to address his “womenomics”. With just one woman Minister in the Cabinet, Abe has to answer the question as to what happened to his commitment to boost the profile of professional women. He has simply not delivered on this as is demonstrated by including a lone woman Minister, Satsuki Katayama, in the Cabinet. His argument, while admitting the participation of women being low, that Katayama can do the work of “two or three”, does not testify to his commitment to women empowerment. What seemed to have weighed heavily in Abe’s consideration was to please various factions and pick Ministers from them rather than consider women representation as a priority. With only one woman in his new Cabinet, all his talk of “a society where women can shine” proved to be just an empty slogan.

Does it mean that Abe was strategising his policy to empower women just to garner political support that would keep him in power? As it transpired, the male-to-male power struggle weighed heavily when Abe toyed with his idea of taking forward his concept of gender equality, which quickly slipped away and Abe was unable to arrest the slide. It is thus clear that Abe was using women merely to advertise his policy.

The truism is that female participation in politics in Japan is still low, though the situation may have currently changed. The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union observes that Japan ranked 161st out of 193 countries, as of September 1, 2018, for its percentage of seats held by women in unicameral parliaments or the lower house. The data demonstrates that women representation in the Lower House in Japan accounts for a mere 10.1 per cent, compared with 39.6 per cent in France, 30.7 per cent in Germany 19.6 per cent in the US and 17 per cent in South Korea.

Constitutional Revision

As stated earlier, Abe is expected to make a concerted push for revising the Constitution, which has not been amended since going into effect in 1947. Abe is likely to present a draft to the Diet during its extraordinary session later this year. With this in mind, Abe appointed Hakubun Shimomura, a former Education Minister, to chair the party’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Revision of the Constitution, and Katsunobu Kato, a former Health and Welfare Minister as Chairman of the LDP General Council. By enlisting these two closest allies with key posts, Abe hopes that in-house coordination of the issue of revising the Constitution could be easy.

But despite Abe’s popularity, his efforts are likely to remain unrealised due to the “invisible hand” of public opinion in Japanese security debates that constrain how far any leader can go at one time. With his choice of new members into the Cabinet, questions could come up about his leadership qualities and it could be a challenge for Abe to regain the public’s lost faith in politics and government and in tackling tough policy issues.

Abe’s wish-list could pass through a thorny process as Opposition party lawmakers could build roadblocks and Abe may not expect a smooth walkover despite the fact that his party enjoys a majority in the Diet. His planned draft proposal could even be contested by his junior coalition partner, Komeito. First, his draft must be approved by the party’s General Council, the highest decision-making organ in the ruling party. In principle, the decisions in the General Council have to be unanimous. But often there have been bitter internal party struggles in the past. This time around, the General Council can become a major battleground. Discussions within the party’s Constitutional Reform Promotion Headquarters would be closely followed before deciding what kind of action was needed. Shimomura has in the past voiced strongly in favour of constitutional revision and now as the head of the Constitutional Reform Promotion Headquarters, he is expected to back Abe’s plan.

The time is opportune for Abe to realise his aim. The ruling coalition now has two-thirds majorities required in both chambers of the Diet to approve an amendment proposal before it is put before the public in a referendum. The Opposition may, however, battle Abe on this issue. Tetsuro Fukuyama, the Secretary-General of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, feels that voices among the public opposing constitutional revision shall gain momentum if Abe remains in power for a long period. The LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, seems clearly wary of being dragged into Abe’s designs. Such developments are raising concerns even within the LDP. Abe could encounter a bumpy road ahead.

Social Security and Consumption Tax Hike Plan

There are other issues as well that Abe needs to address. The Emperor will abdicate on April 30, 2019, and Crown Prince Naruhito will accede to the throne on May 1. A series of rituals and changing the name of the era must be carried out smoothly. Then, in order to overcome deflation, it is vital to make economic growth sustainable. This can be done by prioritising measures such as regulatory easing and growth strategy.

Reform in social security is another issue that cannot be postponed as establishing a social security system is necessary so that it serves all generations. With the rise in the number of elderly population and compounded by falling birth rate, improving social security benefits for the next generation demands priority attention. Since medical bills, nursing care and pension expenditures continue to swell, increasing the tax burdens cannot be avoided. Then, the issue of raising the consumption tax rate from the current eight to 10 per cent in October 2019 could lead to public outcry. The Abe administration needs to facilitate an economic environment which can help the people to withstand the tax increase.

 The hike was originally scheduled for 2015, but was postponed twice in view of the tough economic situation prevailing then. Some observers expect another delay as the House of Councillors election next summer would come right before the planned tax increase. But taking proper countermeasures to ease the additional burden on consumers is an important task for politicians. The consumption tax is a stable source of funds to cover ever-growing social welfare spending amid the aging population. The government currently borrows a lot to pay for these outlays, setting aside the bill for future generations. A tax hike cannot be avoided to stop this practice. From this perspective, raising the consumption tax as scheduled is reasonable.

It may be recalled that when the consumption tax was increased from five to eight per cent in 2014, the government introduced a 5.5 trillion-yen stimulus package. This time around, the challenges are more severe in view of the Upper House polls ahead of the consumption hike plan. Though this time the planned tax hike is two percentage point, one point smaller than in 2014, it could still adversely impact the consumers. Keeping the rate the same at eight per cent for food and other items could however please diners. Abe needs to make plans to spend half of the additional revenue from the raise on making some parts of educational programmes free of charge and for other purposes. The Bank of Japan estimates that the new burden households have to shoulder because of the hike will be a little over 2 trillion yen, far smaller than in 2014. Though Abe is expected to introduce “every possible measure” to stimulate the economy against the hike, placing excessive emphasis on pump-priming measures would only spur the ruling camp to demand more spending.

The mounting social security costs arising from the aging society makes it inevitable for the government to stick to the earlier plan to raise the consumption tax. It is also necessary to secure a new revenue source so that the government can allocate funds to younger age groups to improve social security programmes such as child-rearing assistance.

Trade Issue

The Abe administration has also tough tasks at hand negotiating trade issues with the Donald Trump Administration which is vigorously pursuing measures to reduce the trade deficit that the US faces with many trading partners. So, Abe’s cup is full. All depends on how he deals with these. Thus far the free trade system has served Japan’s national interests and protecting it by building constructive trade relations with the US ought to top Abe’s goal and therefore carefully thought-out arrange-ments for negotiations must weigh above other options and policy choices. The increasing trade frictions between the US and China are also likely to impact Japan’s external trade.

Other Issues

There are some issues that were left unsettled after Japan’s defeat in World War II. For example, Japan’s relations with Russia have run through rough waters over the Northern Territories and no solution has been reached so far. Japan has also territorial issues with China over the Senkaku Islands. The issue of abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s still remains unresolved. Abe had prioritised this issue to be resolved and made a pledge during his election campaign and not fulfilling the promises to families to bring back to Japan their members who were abducted could tarnish his image. This was probably one consideration why Abe retained Kono as the Foreign Minister and made Suga in charge of the abduction problem, demonstrating his determination to resolve this issue. Abe needs to continue pursuing working-level talks with North Korea based on a carefully crafted strategy, while at the same time striving to realise his objectives through summit diplomacy. Though Abe shares common security concerns with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and wants North Korea’s nuclear issue to be resolved soon, Japan’s ties with South Korea have been experiencing turbulence over the comfort women issue. This has prevented an Abe-Moon summit so far. Though President Moon was scheduled to visit Japan this year for the first summit meeting, the comfort women issue has led to its cancellation. If high-level diplomacy through back-channels succeeds, Moon’s Japan visit could be expected anytime next year. All these show that Abe has many domestic as well as foreign policy issues confronting Japan to address during what appears to be his last term in office as the Prime Minister.

Dr Rajaram Panda, until recently the ICCR India Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is currently a Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. He can be reached at rajaram.panda[at]

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