Abe inaugurates "The First Year for Creating a Beautiful Country"

Political Japan’s long holiday is over, as the 166th session of the Japanese Diet opened Thursday, with Prime Minister Abe delivering his policy address Friday.

His address, available in English here and in Japanese here, confirms much of what I have already written about Prime Minister Abe. He even quoted Fukuzawa Yukichi, leading intellectual during the Meiji period, and approvingly cited the Meiji Restoration:

Yukichi Fukuzawa once said that the samurai spirit is distinguished by “a willingness to face daunting challenges and persevere to accomplish the tasks.” It must have been that challenging spirit, which dares to take on difficult tasks optimistically, that enabled our country to forge the modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration.

As I wrote here, Abe is in many ways acting as a successor of Japan’s state-building Meiji oligarchs, although in his case — as he makes very plain in this speech — his task is the rebuilding of the Japanese state.

I’m not going to examine his policy proposals in detail — they run the gamut, including support for Japan’s IT industry, greater economic ties with other Asian countries, creating a more diversified labor market, substantive policies following on last year’s revision of the education law, decentralization, and “proactive diplomacy” — but the picture that emerges from Abe’s litany of proposals is of a substantial, long-term program: “my mission,” he said, “is none other than to draw a new vision of a nation which can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years to come.”

Unconventional is the democratic politician in any country who makes policy decisions looking fifty to one-hundred years into the future, instead of to the next election, and Abe deserves praise for focusing on “big” politics, to borrow a phrase from an mid-1990s essay by Nomura Research Institute Chief Economist Fukushima Kiyohiko. His obsession with completely overhauling the post-war “regime” is a departure from his predecessors, even from Koizumi, whose reforming ambitions were a big departure in their own right. I think politicians in other developed countries need to be having similar discussions, including in the US in advance of the 2008 presidential election. Every developed country is in some way using jury-rigged industrial-age institutions to deal with twenty-first century problems, and, as can be seen in various European countries, national institutions leftover from the industrial age aren’t particularly capable at solving the problems facing states today.

That said, it is impossible for a leader to undertake even a fraction of the ambitious reforms outlined in this speech without public support, which Abe continues to lack, as this and other recent polls show. The linked poll is an Asahi poll showing support for the Abe Cabinet has fallen to 39%. While that number must be taken with a small grain of salt, polls conducted by organizations more sympathetic to Abe have shown that the precipitous decline in his popularity continues unabated. So while Abe may talk about a Meiji restoration for the twenty-first century (at the same time that the DPJ’s slogan is the highly ambiguous “生活維新” — seikatsu ishin [life restoration] — very clearly riffing off the Meiji Restoration), if he cannot find a way to rally the public behind him, he may not last long enough in office to take even the first steps towards his ambitious goals.

And yet, despite the scandals that have dogged the Abe Cabinet, it seems that the DPJ is also tainted (more on this later), which means as a result that the scandals and missteps that have surrounded the Abe Cabinet may be less of an issue. Instead, the months leading up to the July Upper House elections and the election itself may actually be focused on policy questions, including the specific question of constitutional reform and the larger question of how Japan should be governed in this century.

Finally, references to the Meiji Restoration aren’t out of place, but the Meiji Restoration was as much about how Japanese live as about how Japan was governed. Many of the changes required to achieve Abe’s vision of Japanese society have little to do with politics or government and everything to do with culture — and culture is notoriously resistant to change from above.

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