By Yuko Nakano
A year has passed since the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in the election of the House of Representatives and Shinzo Abe was elected as Prime Minister. In his inaugural speech before the Diet (parliament) in January 2013, Prime Minister Abe defined the greatest crisis Japan was facing as “a loss of confidence among Japanese people.”
Just by looking at the numbers, the confidence among Japanese people about the Prime Minister’s governance seems to have softened. According to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) monthly survey, the approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet began at 67 percent, and stayed around 60 for 11 months. In December, it dipped to 50 percent. Some polls show a further drop to below 50.
The key reason for the drop lies with the state secrets protection bill which both chambers of the Diet recently passed. The legislation would set stricter penalties on those who disclose classified information, a critical step for Japan as the lack of strict penalties for leaking secret information has affected information sharing with other governments. However, the bill also faces opposition from those who view it as an infringement on freedom of information. According to an Asahi Shimbun opinion poll, only 24 percent supported the bill while 51 percent opposed it. Many in the Japanese public also think that the government needed to discuss the bill more before it was rushed through the Diet.
On the economy there is better news. Bank of Japan’s quarterly survey, “Tankan,” published in December, showed that Japanese business confidence improved for a fourth straight quarter. The increase in confidence is also evident in the 60+ percent surge in the Nikkei stock index since the beginning of 2013. These are largely results of the first two “arrows” of the Abe Administration’s economic policy, monetary easing and stimulus spending. The third arrow is structural reform which involves balancing the budget. This fall, Abe announced he would raise the sales tax in April 2014, to eight percent from the current five percent, as previously agreed, indicating his seriousness in balancing the budget. Abe knows for world economies to hold confidence in Japan’s new economic momentum, he must demonstrate continuous efforts in balancing the growth strategy and deficit reduction.
Another notable accomplishment is creation of a Japanese National Security Council. Establishment of a central “command and control tower” for Japan’s foreign and defense policies took years and multiple governments to realize. On December 4, 2013, the NSC held it first meeting, and subsequently the Cabinet approved the country’s very first National Security Strategy. The Strategy, which “will guide Japan’s national security policy over the next decade,” presents guidelines for policies in areas of “sea, outer space, cyberspace, official development assistant, and energy.”
Along with the National Security Strategy, the Cabinet adopted the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) and the Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP). The NDPG set forth the basic policies for Japan’s security, including the Self Defense Force (SDF) operational posture and guidelines for the upgrading of defense capability development. The new NDPG called for greater integration of the Ground, Maritime, and Air SDF, including the establishment of an amphibious unit that would respond to contingencies in areas around outlying islands. The MTDP lays out the SDF posture and major equipment development for the next five years. The FY14 budget, which will be formally submitted by the end of December, will see a 2.8 percent bump in defense expenditure, marking the second consecutive year it has increased.
While the United States supports Japan’s effort to expand its military capabilities, some of Tokyo’s neighbors have raised their concerns. Continuing to emphasize the transparency of Japan’s defense policies is a critical task for Abe’s government going forward. Another challenge is to improve working relations with South Korea and China. Disagreements over territorial issues heightened the tension between Japan and its Northeast Asian neighbors in the past couple of years; however, their cooperation is essential in facing shared regional challenges, such as the nuclear weapons program in North Korea.
In addition to strengthening the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the Abe government has increased its engagement with ASEAN. 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the ASEAN-Japan Dialogue relations, and Prime Minister Abe visited all ten ASEAN member countries. He also made strides in building a vision for Japan’s leadership role in the world. One example is his advocacy in advancement of women in society, both in Japan and beyond. At his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September, Abe argued that an increased perception of women in the Japanese workforce would promote economic growth. He also discussed how Japan can lead in promoting security and well-being of women in countries suffering from conflicts and poverty.
Japan is expected to have a stable government for at least two years until both Houses of the Diet will face general election in 2016. During the first year of the Abe government, many policy initiatives in economy, diplomacy, and security have seen progress, but the job is not yet done. Prime Minister Abe’s leadership will be tested as his government will take on challenges in structural reform, regional diplomacy, 3.11 disaster reconstruction, debate over the nation’s nuclear power policy, and subsequent consequences for energy policy. Above all, his leadership will be vital in creating a “strong Japan” by restoring confidence among the Japanese public.