Prime Minister Abe Shinzō Abe spoke with Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs this month in an interview published under the heading “Japan Is Back.”
The interview is fairly comprehensive, discussing Abenomics and Japan’s economic problems, history issues, territorial disputes, the constitution, and security policy. Tepperman was not shy about confronting Abe, especially when it comes to Japan’s imperial past.
The interview provides another glimpse at how foreign policy narratives coalesce. Reflecting on his first term as prime minister and discussing what he is doing differently this time, Abe said, “I have…started to use social media networks like Facebook. Oftentimes, the legacy media only partially quote what politicians say. This has prevented the public from understanding my true intentions. So I am now sending messages through Facebook and other networks directly to the public.”
In other words, Abe is sensitive to the need to control the narrative at home and abroad. The narrative that Abe is trying to establish is that no problem is so daunting that Japan cannot overcome it. While he does not say that “Japan is back” in this interview, that was the title of the speech he gave at CSIS in Washington, DC in February. As in that speech, the challenge for Abe is to acknowledge that his country faces serious difficulties — how else could he justify his program? — but then to show that Japan is more than capable of overcoming them. As Abe says, “I know that the current situation is difficult, and the world economy will have ups and downs. But that is the mandate I was given, and we are elbowing our way through.”
Of course, in propagating this narrative, Abe has help from the “legacy media” around the world. For example, the cover of The Economist this week features a soaring Abe — garbed in Superman’s tights — flanked by fighter jets.
Abe is determined to project an air of inevitability about his policies. Of course, in monetary policy, projecting an air of certainty may signal the credibility of the Bank of Japan’s commitment to a higher rate of inflation, so perhaps there’s something to Abe’s positive thinking. As The Economist writes in its briefing, “Promoters of Abenomics say that changing perceptions will create a virtuous circle. Bigger company profits will engender wage rises, which will boost consumption, which will lead to renewed business investment, which will lead to profits.”
But one must be sensitive to the fact that this is all an exercise in narrative formation. Though Abe has promised to “elbow through,” he has not in fact done so yet. As Michael Cucek shows, there are competing narratives even for the first quarter GDP figures that are being hailed as early indicators of the government’s success. There are still blanks the government must fill in when it comes to its growth strategy. The demographic challenge continues to loom, and will not be elbowed through so easily, unless Abe is sitting on a plan for mass immigration. The point is not that there aren’t encouraging signs or that Abe isn’t in a favorable position to make progress, but rather that the “Japan is back” narrative requires minimizing or ignoring the challenges.
There is a bigger question of what exactly it means that Japan is “back.” Will it be more assertive diplomatically or militarily? Will it spend more on its military? Will it remove the remaining restraints on its use of force at home and abroad? Abe gave some hints in his CSIS speech — “A rules-promoter, a commons’ guardian, and an effective ally and partner to the U.S. and other democracies, MUST Japan be” — but it is still unclear what Abe’s restored Japan would do differently, especially given that the Obama administration, “pivot” notwithstanding, has been exceedingly cautious in Asia. In other words, no matter how successful Abe’s economic program, Japan will still be hemmed in by an ally that seems primarily interested in regional stability, by neighbors that distrust an assertive Japan, and not least by the Japanese public, which is not entirely keen on lifting all restraints on Japanese security policy.
These concerns, taken together with lingering questions about Japan’s economy and whether Abenomics can produce sustainable growth, suggest caution is still in order.