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Japan's China-baiting prime minister Shinzo Abe looks set for election success, but ordinary Japanese have other priorities

Leader heads south to promise 'not to give an inch' to its giant neighbour

With his puppy-eyed stare, timorous voice and famously delicate stomach, Shinzo Abe is an unlikely nationalist warrior.  Just days before a general election this Sunday, however, Japan’s prime minister flew to the country’s southwestern fringes to rattle sabers, pledging to “not give an inch” in a bitter standoff with giant neighbour China.

“Provocations on our territorial land, waters and sovereignty are continuing,” said Mr Abe aboard a coastguard ship in Ishigaki island, 170 km from a clump of uninhabited rocks that have kept the two Asian superpowers at loggerheads for 10 months.  Wearing a coastguard’s hat, the prime minister called the Senkaku islands Japan’s “unique territory, historically and in terms of international law.”  

Mr Abe’s decision to take his election campaign to the frontlines of Japan’s dispute with Beijing is an indication of his priorities after the upper house poll.  His Liberal Democrats (LDP) are expected to cruise to victory, ending a divided parliament and giving the party its tightest grip on power since 2007.  The prime minister says he will focus on the economy, pulling Japan out of its long decline and pushing a set of inflationary policies dubbed ‘abenomics’ that reject the global consensus for austerity. 

But some predict a return of Mr Abe’s political obsessions: rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution, rewriting history, beefing up patriotic education and confronting rising China.  He has already been accused of fanning hate speech in Japan, following a series of provocative demonstrations in Tokyo against the city’s immigration population, in which right-wingers have called for Koreans to be killed.

“The prime minister will do what he wants if he wins the election,” Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party warned this week.  She predicts that the post-victory LDP will worsen already frayed ties with Beijing, particularly if Mr Abe fulfills a long-standing ambition to tear up the war-renouncing article 9 of the constitution. 

The prime minister has trod carefully since taking office again last December, steering a line between pressure from his right-wing supporters who want him to pursue a more hawkish agenda, and the need to ensure smooth ties with Beijing, Japan’s most important trade partner. But diplomatic disaster has rarely seemed far off.

During opening speeches for the election campaign, Mr Abe again refused to label Japan’s colonial wars in Asia “aggressive,” infuriating both China and South Korea. He has hinted at rewriting Japan’s 1995 apology to Asia for these colonial wars and even at rejecting the conclusions of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang.

Polls show very little public support for the prime minister’s pet projects. Most voters say they want the government to tackle Japan’s growing economic and social problems: falling wages, the world’s fastest ageing population and largest public debt. Over half the population wants the nation to scrap its nuclear reactors and invest in more renewables – the LDP is the only party that supports nuclear power.

Why then is the election considered a fait accompli? One reason is voter apathy. Turnout is expected to hit a record low. Voters opted for the liberal-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) from 2009-12 and are now back in their electoral comfort zone with the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the half century after 1955.  Many of the young people who voted for the DPJ will stay at home on Sunday.

Another reason is Mr Abe’s aggressive bid to jumpstart Japan’s stalled $5.9-trillion economy, which has fattened the stock market and fanned hopes that the nation has finally emerged from its wilderness years. The economy has provided the battery power for the government’s agenda but there are still few signs it has generated sustainable growth. Mr Abe will be under intense pressure after the election to keep the economy humming, and to rein in his nationalist instincts.