Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Diet building in Tokyo, I listened to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk up his friendship with US President Donald Trump and their plans to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and the claim that convinced anxious Japanese voters to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the October 22nd election.
It is not unusual for the US-Japan relationship to take center stage in Japan’s domestic politics. No matter who is in the White House, most Japanese voters expect their prime minister to get on well the US president. The cold shoulder Barack Obama gave Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) expedited the demise of the only non-LDP led Japanese government in the last fifty years.
Abe’s domestic policies are unpopular. He rammed through a divisive national security law that restricted press freedom, stifling inquiry and dissent. He continues to push nuclear power despite the public’s post-Fukushima reticence. Abenomics increased economic growth but exploded the deficit and shuffled the gains to Japan’s top 1%, increasing inequality and undermining Japan’s social safety net without addressing any of Japan’s long-term economic challenges. Had the opposition not split over national security concerns, the LDP would have had a tougher time convincing Japanese voters to support them at the polls.
Playing the Field
Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump is also fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The lavish praise Trump awarded the Chinese leader could eventually undermine Abe’s reputation as an able steward of US-Japan relations. Japanese anxieties about China run deeper than their concerns about North Korea. Sporadic fears of US abandonment have plagued Japan ever since Nixon went to China in 1972. For the time being, the Japanese media tends to underreport Trump’s budding bromance with Xi. Should that change, Mr. Abe might start to look like the weaker suitor for the current US president’s attention.
Vladimir Putin also got his share of kind words from the US president on his first official trip to Asia. Most importantly, the ex-KGB officer received a US presidential vote of confidence in his denial of Kremlin meddling in American politics. Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his ongoing military intervention in Ukraine didn’t even make the news. Instead, the leader of the free world focused global attention on the Russian autocrat’s rough treatment at the hands of his Western critics.
Sooner or later the Japanese public will start to wonder about the wisdom of Abe’s close personal relationship with Trump, especially if his US approval ratings stay in the basement and he begins to look like a one-term president. Japanese doubts may quickly turn to anger if the governing LDP spends money it doesn’t have on expensive military hardware it doesn’t need just to mollify Mr. Trump’s anger over a trade deficit that, because of the sheer size of the Japanese and US economies, could never be closed by US arms sales.
Unlike China and Russia, Japan is a democracy where its leaders are only as strong as the support of the people they govern, who eventually will hold them accountable at the polls. Mr. Abe’s tendency to stoke their fears and promise protection may win over a majority of Japanese voters for awhile, and some Japanese voters indefinitely. But the old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about the impossibility of successfully manipulating most voters most of the time probably still holds, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter.
Progressive opponents of authoritarian politicians can hasten their demise and prevent their return with better answers to the national security problems that often get them elected. Here in Japan, Yuriko Koike’s “Party of Hope” tried to out tough the LDP with nationalistic rhetoric on defense and trade. But the popular Tokyo governor’s party was crushed at the polls and she resigned from its leadership. Progressive Japanese legislators uncomfortable with Koike’s turn to the right reassembled as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which fared much better in the recent election and is now the largest opposition party in the Diet.
Tsujimoto Kiyomi, who is leading the fight against Abe’s effort to limit the opposition’s ability to question him, recognizes the CDPJ needs to address the electorate’s concerns about North Korea and China if it wants to lead a progressive Japanese majority back to power. In an interview hours before Abe’s address to the Diet, she explained that Trump’s hard line on North Korea—and Abe’s willingness to parrot it—were not the source of their support in Japan. Japanese voters, like their counterparts in South Korea and the United States, are understandably nervous when they hear both men claim that the time for dialog with North Korea is over. That implies preparations for military actions that could drag Japan into a war and lead to attacks on Japanese cities.
According to Ms. Kiyomi, and other CDPJ legislators I spoke with this month, Japanese voters were responding to Trump’s camaraderie with their prime minister. They understand Japan’s national defense depends on help from the United States. Specific policies matter less than the personal relationships Japanese voters find reassuring.
Unfortunately, because the LDP has been the majority party for all but three of the past 50 years, Japan’s progressive opposition hasn’t had much of chance to develop mature relationships with US government officials. Even when progressives were in charge of the government, the career LDP officials in the bureaucracy continued to dominate US-Japan relations. Moreover, these LDP bureaucrats sought to undermine their political opponents by telling US officials, and the Japanese public, that the new progressive Japanese leadership was anti-American. It’s an unfair accusation that stuck, creating a false impression that the new leadership of the CDPJ intends to work hard to correct.
Support from leading progressive politicians in the United States would help, a lot. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a political hero in Japan. His campaign for the US presidency was well-received by Japanese voters who share many of the same economic anxieties Sanders spoke to during the 2016 election. Visible friendly relations with progressive US leaders like Sanders would give the LDP’s progressive opponents the same political shot in the arm that Abe got from his relationship with Trump.
More importantly, US progressives could learn a great deal about America’s most important Asian ally if they expanded their brief beyond the old school US Japan hands who steered President Obama away from progressive politicians in Japan. That’s especially true when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Progressive politicians in both countries have a hard-time convincing their respective voters that they can be effective international leaders. They might be able to change that by working together on tough problems like North Korea, rather than continuing to work separately.