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Bill Emmott: Will ex-Japan PM Abe be judged as a survivor that drifted with the tides?

Bill Emmott (Mainichi)

By Bill Emmott

    Historians are divided by one quite fundamental debate. One school, who believe in what is often known as "the great man theory of history" holds that some forceful individual leaders can and do have a transformative effect. The opposing school believe that such leaders simply alter timings, speeds and the superficial texture of change, but cannot really change the fundamental direction, because that is set by underlying more fundamental forces such as climate, technology, demography and geopolitics.

    This debate is relevant to a question of great current importance in and for Japan: how should we judge Shinzo Abe, now that he has retired, shortly after setting the record as the country's longest-serving prime minister? Has he altered Japan's direction and transformed its position, politically, diplomatically, socially or economically? Or will history see him largely as a leader who was like a boat carried along by the tides, making a short-term difference to the boat's stability, speed and comfort but did not alter its destination in any significant or lasting way?

    By answering this question about Abe we do not need to take sides in the historians' debate: we just need to decide which in his total of nearly nine years in office will look stronger to future historians, the tides or the man. My view is that they will choose the tides. For what strikes me about many of the major developments that are attributed to the Abe era is that most can be traced back to initiatives that were begun by previous prime ministers. For example, he left the prime minister's office and its powers stronger than he found them in 2012, and much stronger than in his first term in 2006-07, but this process of building up prime ministerial power began at least as far back as Prime Minister Hashimoto in 1996-98, and arguably even earlier.

    Similarly, many now cite the centralisation of control over top bureaucratic appointments as an Abe achievement, which it is, except that the effort had been begun under the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009-12. Probably the real innovation amid this centralisation of control was his administration's strong efforts to quieten down criticism in the media -- although even that had also been seen in earlier times, albeit to a lesser extent.

    Many commentators point to Abe's diplomatic initiatives as having yielded important changes to Japan's profile internationally, its network of friends and its ability to operate autonomously from the United States. That is also true, but many of the individual features of this progress also date back to previous prime ministers. Japan's closer relationship with India was begun at least as far back as Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2000-01, and was widely noted under his successor Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi too. It is a similar story with Japan's closer relationship with Australia and indeed with the United Kingdom. Language about championing democracy and freedom all the way from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific dates back a similarly long time. So do efforts to gain more freedom of manoeuvre for the Self-Defence Forces.

    Arguably only the specific achievement of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership can be laid firmly and clearly at Abe's door, and that definitely significant achievement occurred chiefly because President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Pact (TPP), creating a vacuum that risked destroying diplomatic and commercial gains. Prime Minister Abe deserves credit for stepping in with other nations to rescue the TPP, but that does not make him a radical, transformative figure.

    Domestically, too, the Abe legacy will mainly be seen as one of making marginal, often valuable, reforms but not of a transformative sort that historians will choose to highlight. He restored political control over the Bank of Japan, reversing the central bank's move to independence during the 1990s; he stepped up reforms of corporate governance; he accelerated public spending on child care facilities; he legislated for equal pay for equal work between full-time, regular workers and part-time, non-regular ones; he sought to set limits, albeit high ones, on workers' overtime hours.

    Yet despite a lot of political noise about "Abenomics" and its "three arrows" there was no noticeable impact on the long-term trend of Japan's economic growth, nor on its rate of productivity improvement, nor its birth rate. Modest rates of economic growth, with weak household consumption, nearly 40% of workers in non-regular contracts and high levels of relative poverty, were his inheritance and will now be the inheritance of his successor. This strategy, which is essentially a cheap-labour model, with depressed wage growth and one of the lowest official minimum wages in the developed world, was begun by governments in the late 1990s, under pressure from big corporations, and has been maintained by all successors including the Abe administration.

    This analysis may seem rather negative. It isn't meant to be: rather, my argument is that the Abe administration was simply normal, by comparison with other Liberal Democratic Party-led governments, in every respect except one: the length of time Mr Abe stayed in office.

    It is that longevity in office that marks Mr Abe out: he accumulated many small but useful pieces of progress for his country and became well-known and respected globally largely by virtue of being prime minister for such an unusually long time. His great achievement was to survive, politically. But given that he was in office for so long and won so many elections, the catalogue of his reforms is quite disappointing.

    It may well be that historians will attribute that disappointing reform record not to any particular shortcomings of Abe as a leader but rather to the constraints he, his office, his party and Japan itself have been subject to. Those constraints need to be borne in mind as we ask ourselves now what we should expect from his successor, Yoshihide Suga.

    Since Mr Suga was Mr Abe's right-hand man as Chief Cabinet Secretary ever since December 2012, it would be strange to expect any radical change in the new government's policies. There will, no doubt, be differences of emphasis and initially we will see new energy. But neither in domestic nor foreign affairs is there likely to be any sort of transformation: the long-term tides that Prime Minister Abe sailed upon will now be sailed upon by Prime Minister Suga.

    That is why it feels right that the main focus of speculation has been less on his policies and more on how long Mr Suga can hope to remain in office. Like Abe before him, the main factor that determines his prominence and significance for historians will be his ability not as a reformer but as a survivor.

    (Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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