Can Japan's new leader make the nation rise again?

Newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to restore his country's fortunes via a huge spending drive and a more aggressive foreign policy. So could he succeed? David McNeill reports

Tokyo

Five years ago, Shinzo Abe tearfully quit as Japan's leader after succumbing to an ailment that left him spending long periods on the toilet. Ulcerative colitis leaves sufferers prone to diarrhoea and is worsened by stress, an unfortunate condition for a man forced to sit through long political meetings and deal with a hostile media. The sight of Mr Abe's crumpled, doleful features on national television reinforced the view that this son of wealth and privilege literally didn't have the stomach for the job.

To the surprise of many, however, Mr Abe is back, leading the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) to a stunning revival in Sunday's general election. The party crushed its left-leaning Democrat (DPJ) rival, which has shed two-thirds of its pre-election strength. No fewer than eight cabinet members lost seats, including the party's top spokesman and its Finance Minister.

Mr Abe's political resurrection is all the more remarkable because he appears to be offering much of the same snake-oil medicine that saw him written off five years ago: hawkish foreign-policy views abroad and public works spending at home.

The new government faces formidable challenges: an economy that has been declining for more than two decades, the highest public debt in the developed world, and a workforce that is ageing. Some of Japan's once shining corporate stars, including Sony and Sharp, are struggling with record losses. Japan's north-east, devastated by last year's triple disaster, has barely begun to rebuild. All but two of the country's 50 reactors are offline amid a bitter debate about the future of nuclear power that has raged since the Fukushima disaster.

The LDP remedy has already raised eyebrows: an ambitious increase in spending on public works, financed by aggressive monetary easing – the same pork-barrel policies that helped the party stay in power for more than half a century until 2009. Mr Abe is banking that he can jolt the world's third-largest economy out of a deflationary spiral that has plagued it for years. He is also likely to switch the nation's reactors back on and face down anti-nuclear protesters, a politically risky strategy.

Mr Abe's prescription for what he sees as declining national confidence may be even riskier. He wants to inject more patriotic education into schools and water down already sparse references to Japanese war crimes. He also hopes to realise a long-cherished conservative position by challenging Japan's pacifist constitution. Written during Japan's post-war occupation by the US, any revision would have a profound impact on Japan's already frayed relations with Beijing.

The test case for Mr Abe's pledge to somehow repair ties with Japan's biggest trading partner while staunchly defending national interests against what conservatives see as Chinese hegemony are the Senkaku Islands. China has accused Japan of "stealing" what it calls the Diaoyus during its colonial zenith, and promised to defend them, a threat backed by incursions by Chinese aircraft and boats into nearby waters. Mr Abe has staked much political capital on getting the Chinese to back off. "The Senkakus are inherently Japanese," he said in November, comparing the dispute with Britain's 1982 fight for the Falklands. "We will unambiguously protect our territory."

Seoul is unlikely to be happy with Mr Abe's election either. He has made similar pledges in relation to the Takeshimas, another group of islets (called Dokdo in South Korea) claimed by both sides. Potentially even more damaging for ties between East Asia's two most powerful democracies, he has made no secret of his determination to reverse a key government admission of guilt on an issue that infuriates South Koreans – Japan's wartime enslavement of up to 300,000 Asian women.

Mr Abe's comeback, helped by a drug that has curbed his intestinal condition, is impressive, and he is entitled to look smug. On closer examination, however, the LDP victory is not as impressive as it seems. The turnout for Sunday's poll was the lowest since the 1996 election, with 11 million fewer Japanese turning out to vote than in 2009. Millions of young people never bothered to turn up, a situation that favoured the older conservative voters who typically vote for the LDP.

To his credit, Mr Abe was candid yesterday about the electoral verdict, accepting that it was less a vote of trust in his party than an expression of despair at its predecessor. "It's their answer to the last three years of political confusion," he told NHK. "Now we have to show we have earned that victory."

Revolving door: previous leaders

Five prime ministers have come and gone since Shinzo Abe resigned in 2007. His successor, veteran politician Yasuo Fukuda, but scandal and the economic downturn forced him to resign in 2008. Then came Taro Aso, also of the LDP, whose gaffes forced him to step down in 2009. Yukio Hatoyama resigned in 2010 over a failure to fulfil campaign promises. Naoto Kan swung the vote to the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), but he also quit after a year amid criticism of his handling of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The DPJ's Yoshihiko Noda took the baton, only to hit political hurdles, paving the way for Mr Abe's return.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks