The Buzz

After Abe: Will Japan Fall Back Into Old Habits?

Second, the Upper House has increasingly become a stumbling block for Tokyo’s ruling parties. The 1993 introduction of winner-takes-all, single-member districts for the Lower House—combined with declining party loyalty—has made it more likely for power in the Lower House to alternate between two major parties or coalitions. But the Upper House is still elected through a proportional representation system, giving greater opportunity to Japan’s smaller opposition parties, diversifying its make-up. Coupled with the different timing of Upper and Lower House elections, this increases the chances that Japan’s voters give the opposition parties a bigger voice in the Upper chamber. Since Japan’s Upper House is more powerful than other parliamentary systems, both the DPJ and the LDP while in opposition have proven adept at exploiting its powers to hold government policy hostage. Four of five previous premiers—Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso of the LDP and Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ—were brought down as the opposition in the Upper House stymied their legislative priorities.

Sheer electoral math tells that Abe will retain control of the Upper House in this summer’s elections—given the ruling coalition’s seventy-seven seats that are not up for a vote this time, so it only needs to win slightly more than three-quarters of the seats it has in play to retain the majority. But the institutional pressures for divergence between Upper and Lower Houses are likely to reassert themselves in time, especially if there is a more viable opposition to draw votes away from the LDP.

Finally, the increasing unpredictability of public support means that prime ministers pay a higher price when facing these kinds of institutional obstacles. Over the past two decades, public support has grown more volatile, with cabinet approval ratings for new governments starting out higher than before, but declining more precipitously when the prime minister fails to live up to expectations. As a result, a form of “polling politics” has emerged whereby both the LDP and the DPJ have been quick to oust their leaders when their approval ratings drop below a certain threshold. Abe has managed to avoid these perils thanks in part to a discredited opposition, yet his successors are unlikely to face such a favorable political climate.

What does the likelihood of a return to the pattern of short-lived leaders mean for Japan’s friends? Five trends in Japanese foreign policymaking are likely to emerge.

First, and perhaps counterintuitively, a high turnover in prime ministers will produce even greater continuity and conservatism in Japan’s overarching foreign policy line. Typically, only strong leaders who managed to stay in office for extended periods have succeeded at driving major shifts in foreign policy—think Shigeru Yoshida, Yasuhiro Nakasone, and Junichiro Koizumi—while weaker ones who moved too rashly, like Yukio Hatoyama, have paid a steep political price.

Second, a vacuum of political leadership will give bureaucrats a greater role in foreign affairs. This can reinforce the tendency toward continuity. But it also is likely to result in a greater stinginess in development assistance, one of Japan’s traditional instruments of influence abroad, as the powerful finance ministry gains a freer hand to advance its number one priority—cutting the national debt.

Third, Japan will have difficulty maintaining a strong international presence if domestic political pressures present leaders from developing ties with other world leaders. Furthermore, diplomatic crises could become more frequently if new leaders lack the experience to manage international crises.

Fourth, with no clear leadership hierarchy, ambitious politicians are more tempted to resort to populist appeals to advance their careers, especially when senior leaders have less clout to tone down their rhetoric. Former Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto’s appearance has shown how a blunt and outspoken critic could rapidly gain national prominence at a time when personal popularity becomes the currency of politics.

Finally, a return to the pattern of frequently rotating leaders is likely to feed the gridlock that has become all too common on sticky foreign policy issues, such as the Futenma base relocation. This arguably makes it important for the United States to push hard to resolve politically sensitive issues while a proven leader like Abe is in office, but then be prepared to dial things back and focus more on lower-profile relationship maintenance when weaker leaders take the helm.

Of course, Abe’s track record gives his successors ideas for how to buck this trend of weak, short-lived leaders. But replicating the Abe cabinet’s success will not be easy under the current political system. Without further reform to rectify the imbalances at home, Japanese prime ministers seem destined to struggle to project strong leadership abroad.

James Gannon is executive director of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE)/USA, and Ryo Sahashi is associate professor at Kanagawa University and research fellow at the JCIE. This article first appeared in Asia Unbound.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Embassy Tokyo.