Dec. 26 marks five years since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power. If his first stint as prime minister, which lasted for a year from 2006 to 2007, is included, Abe is Japan's third longest-serving head of government in the postwar period.
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Abe has stayed in power for such a long time because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has kept scoring landslide victories in elections for both houses of the Diet since he made a comeback as president of the LDP.
Election results are significant. Still, questions remain as to whether the Abe government has patiently worked on long-term challenges by taking advantage of its solid power base resulting from the ruling coalition's predominance in the legislature.
Over the past year, the exposure of favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen and Okayama-based Kake Educational Institution -- and other issues have shed light on problems involving the Abe administration's prolonged predominance.
The approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet in opinion polls conducted by news organizations have recently recovered, but the tendency of a growing number of people saying they cannot praise the prime minister individually remains unchanged.
The ultra-easy money policy implemented by the Bank of Japan (BOJ), which is part of the "Abenomics" economic policy mix promoted by the Abe administration, has caused the value of the yen to plummet and share prices -- mainly those of companies in export-oriented industries -- to rise. The ratio of job offers to job seekers and other economic indexes, which Prime Minister Abe has often cited as proof that Abenomics has produced positive results, have improved.
Still, consumer spending, which is the core of Japan's economy, has failed to grow as the government had hoped. Japan is far from achieving a 2 percent annual inflation rate, which the government had initially aimed to attain within two years. Therefore, the government has not been able to declare that Japan has overcome prolonged deflation. There is no doubt that this is largely because Abenomics has failed to dispel people's concerns about their future.
The Abe government has reeled out such slogans as "revitalization of local economies," "dynamic engagement of all citizens" and "work-style reform" one after another. However, the government lacks a serious sense of crisis over the declining population and the aging society, which is one of the most serious challenges, and has implemented only half-baked countermeasures.
The government has spent massive amounts of money on economic stimulus measures saying, "We'll rev up the engine of Abenomics," while postponing a consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent on two occasions because the administration prioritizes short-term measures to boost the economy. Under the circumstances, there are no prospects that the government will achieve fiscal health in the foreseeable future.
With regard to diplomatic and security policies, Prime Minister Abe should be appreciated for promoting active summit diplomacy and becoming one of the most experienced leaders among G-7 heads of state and heads of government.
Still, Japan needs to rely on the United States to tackle problems involving North Korea, which the prime minister describes as "a national crisis." There are no prospects that these problems will be solved anytime soon. In particular, since the U.S. government of President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the Abe government appears to attach excessive importance to Japan-U.S. relations and now place a growing priority on boosting Japan's defense capabilities.
Building up sound relations with the United States is certainly the core of Japan's diplomacy. However, Tokyo faces a major challenge of how to keep an appropriate distance from the U.S. president, who is under fire from the international community for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, amongst other issues.
Prime Minister Abe pledged to prioritize economic stimulus measures during election campaigns. Once the governing bloc won an election, however, the prime minister took advantage of the coalition's majority to enact legislation over which the nation was split -- such as the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, security-related laws and so-called "anti-conspiracy" legislation -- in a high-handed manner.
Democratic politics should not split public opinion but pursue consensus as much as possible. What is important in such politics is respect for minority opinions and thorough and in-depth discussions. However, the prime minister has neglected to make efforts toward these ends.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Abe has recently made a problematic remark that cannot be overlooked. In a speech at a meeting of newspaper company executives organized by Kyodo News, the prime minister pointed out that younger generations, who tend not to read newspapers, are more interested in Abe politics than elderly people, many of whom subscribe to newspapers. He then said younger generations "gather a diversity of information in an age when SNS and other media are highly developed, and proactively evaluate such information."
It's true that the approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet are higher among younger people in opinion polls. However, his remark in question appears to reflect his belief that his supporters are right and those who voice opposition to him are wrong.
Many senior members of the LDP admit that the party won the Oct. 22 House of Representatives election thanks to a split in the opposition camp.
The prime minister will enter the new year without dispelling the public's suspicions over the Moritomo and Kake scandals.
Abe undoubtedly feels that LDP legislators began to voice objection to the government's policy-making process led by the prime minister's office after the general election because some members of the public are increasingly critical of him.
The LDP will hold a leadership election in autumn 2018. If re-elected, Abe will be able to stay on as LDP president until autumn 2021, raising the possibility that he will stay in power for a total of nearly 10 years, the longest in the history of Japan's constitutional politics.
Constitutional amendment, which is the prime minister's biggest goal, will be an important issue next year. However, the issue could split Japanese society depending on the process of amending the supreme law. Members of the public do not necessarily prioritize constitutional reform over social security and other key policy issues. If he aims to stay in power, Prime Minister Abe should transform his political style into one that pursues the formation of a broad consensus.