THE RETURN to power of Japan’s conservatives has once again spurred hope that the country can restore its role as an economic powerhouse and the northern anchor of a rebalanced American presence in East Asia. A revitalized Japan could act as a weighty counter to China’s apparent determination to assert itself as the new regional hegemon. The newly installed government, under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) banner, offers prospects for more stable and competent governance after years of turbulence and lack of leadership.
But there are grounds also for a high degree of caution, not only about the advent of stable leadership but also about where Japan is headed. The new government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embraces contradictory national impulses. In the realm of economics, Abe’s cabinet includes supporters of a return to old-style pork-barrel spending and export-led growth policies. But it also includes reformers who favor deregulation and open markets to force Japan to compete more efficiently in the global economy. In foreign policy, the cabinet encompasses pragmatic realists who want to expand Japan’s security role in close coordination with the United States as well as revisionist nationalists who hanker for a face-off with China and express provocatively unrepentant views about Japan’s wartime record.
It is unclear how Abe will resolve these conflicting pulls, especially under the pressure of forthcoming upper-house elections. It isn’t even clear just where he personally stands on such matters.