By Bill Emmott
In their final term in office, elected national leaders usually focus mostly on their legacy, on what they can do to make sure future historians write positively about their influence on their country and, in some cases, the world. Sometimes, of course, they don't know when their final term will be, but Shinzo Abe now surely knows that he has just been elected LDP leader, and so prime minister, for the last time. His main task will be to make himself remembered for more than simply being a great survivor in the prime minister's office.
In domestic Japanese politics, to have made it through your sixth consecutive year as prime minister, to have already served seven years in all, and with every prospect of eventually passing a total of 10 years, is a considerable achievement. But to the outside world, Prime Minister Abe's record amounts to little more than having brought to an end an era when Japan was changing leaders so fast that it was hard to keep track of them.
His government's policies have stabilized the economy and Japan is viewed with some greater respect in foreign affairs than it was in 2012. But neither "Abenomics" nor his remarkably active overseas travel schedule has produced any substantial change in Japan's course or reputation. It is still seen as a weakened economy, with many famous companies that have lost international competitiveness, and as a rather vulnerable, quite passive player in geopolitics.
Some of this perception is unfair -- after all, Japan deserves considerable kudos for reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership for trade after America's withdrawal in 2017 -- and some is merely an inevitable consequence of changes in global politics and economics that are outside the control of any prime minister. Some, however, reflects justified disappointment about how little a government with a succession of strong majorities in the Diet has managed to do. And some reflects criticism of what the Abe administration has done.
Prime Minister Abe now has his last chance to change this international perception. He surely does not want to be remembered simply as having been the steadiest hand among a weak generation of politicians. If so, then in this columnist's view he needs to focus on doing two big things, and on undoing one important blemish on his record.
One of the big tasks lies in economics, the other in foreign affairs. They are connected, for a country's economic strength is also the main basis for its diplomatic heft. When Prime Minister Abe returned to office in December 2012 he inherited a country with a deeply divided citizenry, between the 60% of employees who enjoy well-paid, secure, full-time jobs, and the 40% on non-regular and part-time contracts who earn low incomes, receive little training and have little security.
This situation is now common among the advanced countries of the world: While economies have recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis, many citizens in France, Italy, Germany and America feel left behind, stuck in low-paid jobs. Productivity growth is slow, which means wage rises are also small, and household consumption remains weak. Unlike those countries, however, Japan has been in this situation now for nearly 30 years.
The Abe administration has seen a big rise in the number of people joining the workforce, especially women and retired men in their 60s and 70s. But it has done nothing about the deep 60-40 split between regular and non-regular workers, which also means that Japan has lived for far longer than others with poor productivity growth, declining levels of training, and low wage rises. That is why the economy has done nothing more than stabilize under Abenomics.
If the now-renewed Abe administration were to succeed in reforming labor laws so as to return Japan toward the position it was in in 1990, with 80% of workers on regular, fairly secure contracts, and only 20% on short-term, non-regular contracts, then it would have achieved a truly radical improvement in the country's prosperity and social stability.
This isn't easy, given the burdens of an aging population and the fears among the 60% of losing their security. But some convergence is desperately needed, giving more security to the non-regulars, and compensating the 60% for accepting more flexibility. Only then will incomes start to rise and domestic demand truly revive. Only then, too, will Prime Minister Abe's dream of "letting women shine" become real: You cannot shine in short-term, part-time, low-paid jobs.
A stronger economy, with declining inequality and rising incomes, would make the second big task, that of building a more equal relationship for Japan with both China and the United States, easier and more credible. Japan needs the American alliance, but President Donald Trump has proved that the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner on either trade or security. Japan also needs to stand up to China and not be bullied over the Senkakus, over North Korea, or over any other regional issues.
The successful revival of TPP has been a good start, for it has strengthened Japan's reputation in ASEAN, Australasia and across the Pacific. The Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union has also been positive. Constitutional reform, if it is achieved, will make far less difference than these. Now, in his final years, Prime Minister Abe should aim to make Japan, if not the leader of Asia, then at least, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to say of America, its "indispensable nation."
Then finally, there is the task to undo. In my view, the biggest blemish on the Abe administration since 2012 has been its efforts to limit media scrutiny and criticism, especially on NHK and commercial TV, and its surveillance and secrets laws. These efforts have tarnished Japan's global reputation at just a time when it purported to stand up as a beacon of democracy, free speech and the rule of law, in a world when populists like Donald Trump were attacking these liberal principles.
By the time he leaves office, if he really wants to be remembered as a leader who made Japan a model, liberal nation, then he needs to set NHK free again and to end -- and be seen to end -- his assault on the free press. Labor reform, an indispensable nation, true media freedom: Those are Abe's tasks, if he wants his legacy to shine.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)