Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan on Aug. 24, surpassing the tenure of Eisaku Sato, who headed the government from 1964 to 1972.
In November, he will likely become the longest-serving prime minister since the Meiji era (1868-1912), surpassing the tenure of prewar Prime Minister Taro Katsura, who was in power from 1901-1906, from 1908-1911 and from 1912-1913. However, considering that the prewar political system is considerably different from the postwar system, it is of great significance that Abe's tenure has surpassed that of Sato.
A long-serving administration is advantageous in many aspects, such as increased presence and influence within the international community. Needless to say, however, staying in power over a long period is not the purpose of politics. It is essential to scrutinize whether the Abe government has sufficiently taken advantage of having a stable majority in both chambers of the Diet to run the government in a way winning confidence from the public.
As was the case under the Sato government, economic conditions have been relatively stable under the Abe administration.
When Sato was in power, Japan was undergoing a period of rapid economic growth. In 1968, Japan's gross national product surpassed that of then West Germany, making the country the second largest economic power in the world, and many people in Japan were starting to experience affluence in their own lives.
The current Abe administration was fortuitously launched as Japan and the rest of the world were recovering from the economic downturn that followed the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008. Prime Minister Abe frequently emphasizes the achievements of Abenomics, the economic policy mix his government has been promoting, but most members of the public still do not feel that the economy has recovered from the slump.
Sato was in power when the then largest opposition Japan Socialist Party started to dwindle in strength. Abe similarly took over the reins of government immediately after the previous administration led by the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan collapsed in late 2012. The stability of the Abe administration was aided partly by the weak opposition camp.
However, the intraparty situation of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) now is markedly different from that when Sato was in power. Many influential legislators who headed intraparty factions were competing for the position of prime minister under the Sato administration. There is no denying that power struggles between factions brought problems, but still, there were active discussions and a sense of tension within the governing party.
Now, Abe stands in a dominant position and there appear to be no powerful candidates to succeed him. Intraparty policy debate remains inactive, and bureaucrats have drawn back.
Former Prime Minister Sato left his mark on history by winning the reversion of Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, which had been occupied by the United States following the end of World War II, in 1972. Apparently with this in mind, Prime Minister Abe has often referred to "total reassessment of Japanese diplomacy in the postwar period."
However, Japan's chances of settling a territorial dispute over the Russian-held Northern Territories off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido are becoming increasingly remote. Moreover, Japan lacks clues on how to solve problems pertaining to North Korea. Japan's relations with South Korea have chilled, possibly threatening the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which was signed in 1965 under the Sato government.
The prime minister's ultimate goal is to revise the postwar Constitution. However, the Abe administration should not steer the Diet in a high-handed manner simply to leave a political legacy. The Abe government should give thought to a potential backlash from the ultra-easy money policy of Abenomics and how to rehabilitate debt-ridden state finances, putting effort into making sure it does not leave a negative legacy.