Project: Asia Programme, UK-Japan Global Seminar Series

Head, Asia Programme

Kiichi Fujiwara, Professor of International Politics, University of Tokyo

To stay in power, the Abe government must maintain its initial pragmatic foreign policy posture and avoid any statements that could potentially be interpreted as an endorsement of Japan’s past wartime actions, write John Nilsson-Wright and Kiichi Fujiwara.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the Japanese Diet in Tokyo on a controversial national security bill on 26 May 2015. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses the Japanese Diet in Tokyo on a controversial national security bill on 26 May 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Sympathetic analysts of Japanese politics highlight Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s moderate and internationalist posture, emphasizing economic recovery and a pragmatic approach to security issues. By contrast, his critics focus on the fear that Abe’s instinctive stance is one of uncompromising conservative nationalism, including historical revisionism.
  • In his first few months in office, Abe adopted a cautious approach, concentrating on delivering his campaign’s economic promises. However, in late 2013 his visit to the Yasukuni shrine and a cabinet reshuffle hinted at a move towards a more controversial agenda.
  • The ‘Abe doctrine’, set out in a speech by the prime minister on 18 January 2013, explicitly refers to democratic norms and values, placing Japan in the community of law-abiding democracies and pointing to its similarities with the West, including a commitment to international cooperation and the rule of law. This doctrine is part of an effort to mark China as the odd man out in the international community.
  • By promoting Japan’s new security legislation to allow a broader interpretation of the country’s right to ‘collective self-defence’, Abe’s government is attempting to convince the public that these reforms are essential to protect Japan. But critics are suspicious that they are a back-door route to more wide-ranging constitutional change and a de facto revision of Japan’s alliance relationship with the United States.
  • Opinion polls are showing a sharp dip in the popularity of the government, which may find it politic to maintain its initial pragmatic foreign policy posture, avoiding any statements that could potentially be interpreted as an endorsement of Japan’s past wartime actions. Sustaining broad popular agreement appears to be essential for promoting the security revisions that are arguably vital to Japan’s long-term strategic and national interests.