Now in the fourth year of his second term as prime minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe accomplished a remarkable victory in July’s (half) upper house national election. He not only led his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to an outright majority, for the first time in twenty-seven years, but, with his coalition partners, he secured a two-thirds, or super, majority (163 seats in the 242-seat house), enabling him to contemplate revision of the Constitution — something his post-1945 predecessors could only dream of.
But despite his unquestioned mandate and string of electoral victories, Abe is not a popular prime minister. His latest triumph rested on the vote of just 21 percent of the electorate (35.9 percent of the 54 per cent of eligible voters who actually voted).
Among newly enfranchised eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, the voting rate was only 51 and 39 percent respectively, showing a palpable lack of enthusiasm, and overall, the support he gained was grudging.
Indeed, few would dispute Gerald Curtis of Columbia University, who declared the election “one of the dullest in recent memory” in which “the prevailing sentiment is that he [Abe] has done better than his predecessors, and replacing him with another LDP leader, let alone an opposition coalition government, would only make matters worse — especially given that the global economy is in turmoil.”
But Abe is undeterred. Heedless of the fact that his vaunted economic policies have failed, that his strategic and defense agenda have stirred widespread national opposition, and that his hard-line policies in Okinawa have provoked an entire region to the brink of rebellion, he seems intent on a fundamental rejigging of the institutions of state.
His agenda is focused on “activating Japan’s one hundred million people” and leading them onto the world stage with a radically revised constitution and under the banners of “resilience” and “positive pacifism.”
Arrows in the Japanese Air
The current Abe era (following his first term in 2006–7) began with his election victory in December 2012 and rested largely on promises to revitalize the economy. Abe signally failed to do so in his first term, but in 2012 he assured voters that he would rescue the economy from the doldrums that have stalked the country since the bursting of the asset price bubble in 1991.
Abe told the electorate he would kickstart the economy by firing off “three arrows”: quantitative and qualitative monetary easing (with an inflation target of 2 percent); stimulus spending (pump-priming), and a long-term economic reform and growth strategy. By characterizing himself as an archer, Abe strove to transform his otherwise grey image into that of a swashbuckling hero.
As Japan’s printing presses flooded the market with money and its government spent on multiple lavish infrastructure projects, the country’s pension funds, joined by foreign investors, began to invest their funds in the stock market.
The Nikkei index — having reached almost 39,000 in the glory days of the 1980s bubble — had fallen to 8,600 by December 2012. But by July 2015 it had skyrocketed to 20,841. The boost was short-lived however, and by July 2016 was back to around 16,500.
Still searching for the third arrow in his quiver, in September 2015 Abe revealed the “Mark 2” version of Abenomics. He flourished three new “arrows” in the form of aspirational targets: “A strong economy that generates hope among the people,” (increasing GDP by 20 percent by 2021); “child-rearing support measures to allow people to pursue their dreams” (to stop the population from sliding below one hundred million); and “a social security system that leads to a sense of well-being.”
Accomplishing these targets would signify “activation of Japan’s one-hundred-million-people society.” A “National Conference for Activating [Japan’s] One Hundred Million People” was even set up at the end of 2015 by Minister Kato Katsunobu, and the government published a “National Plan” in May 2016 addressing issues like the country’s low birth rate, child support, and aged care.
Grand skepticism greeted the plan however, not least because Japan is a capitalist rather than planned economy and bureaucrats cannot produce major social change simply by willing it. The plan’s economic growth aspirations were astronomical considering the 0.7 percent rate of Abe’s first three years.
Young women (and men) showed no immediate eagerness to set about raising the birth rate per woman from 1.4 to 1.8 simply because the state said so. Nor did care workers seem likely to stop their flow away from the notoriously poorly paid sector in order to achieve the goal of “zero departure” simply because the plan called for it.
In short, basic trends in the welfare sector were unlikely to be reversed without a substantial increase in the rewards attached to motherhood or carer status, neither of which was in the offing unless and until there was significant recovery in the economy at large.
Nonetheless, in the quest for a “strong economy,” the Bank of Japan, under Abe’s nominee, Kuroda Haruhiko, adopted extreme quantitative easing policies that trebled the monetary base (mostly money in circulation) from 121 to 381 trillion yen in less than three years.
Abe added 130 trillion yen to the national debt in just over three years, pushing it to the staggering level of one quadrillion yen, 247 per cent of GDP (as against 180 for Greece, 125 for USA). One could visualize this debt as a pile of ten thousand yen notes, soaring ten thousand kilometers into the sky, far above the highest mountains.
Historically, such debt has only been resolved by war, hyper-inflation, or massive currency devaluation, and the only precedent in modern Japanese history is that of wartime Japan on the brink of defeat and collapse. Kuroda, having fired off a “bazooka” that plunged interest rates into negative territory from early 2016, was apparently bereft of further heavy-caliber financial weaponry.
Other policies — reduced corporate taxes, enhanced “labor mobility,” and increased indirect consumption taxes — simply reproduced basic neoliberal principles already implemented in Europe and the United States. From similar policies, similar consequences could be expected — increased corporate profits, reduced worker salaries and welfare services, widening social divisions, rising suicide levels.
And this is precisely what happened. Although the Abe government’s public finance policies boosted exports and ratcheted up the stock exchange, they exacted a large price. The sometime “Japanese” model of management and employment (featuring notably “lifetime” employment) increasingly gave way to the US model.
Between 2012 and 2016 corporate profits rose (from 20.5 trillion to 33.5 trillion yen) while real wages fell (from an index of 99.8 to 95.3), and national debt ballooned (as already noted).
By 2015, 40 percent of the workforce (slightly more than twenty million people) were employed on an “irregular,” part-time, or occasional basis, with paltry income and minimal or no benefits or pension entitlements, and more than half of them barely surviving on an annual income of less than two million yen (roughly $20,000).
During Japan’s growth decades of the 1960s to 1980s, its core social strata was the securely employed middle class. Now it is the precariat, the marginal strata of “new poor.”
In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disasters, the Liberal Democratic Party and later the Abe government adopted one word in particular as a kind of talisman, embodying both policy and aspiration: resilience (kyojin). A “Basic Law for National Resilience” was adopted in 2013.
A national resilience-promotion headquarters was set up under the prime minster in 2016. Grandiose in conception, it amounted, in effect, to a design for “disaster-proofing” the entire country.
The nation’s “most prominent experts on energy, disaster studies, engineering, spatial planning and other critical areas of expertise” were involved in drawing up the design, and Abe began to expand its usage to qualify his government’s policies in general.
Some began to apply the term to the Abe state itself, its “resilience” (i.e., toughness, flexibility, strength, responsiveness) nothing less than a “global benchmark” and a “keystone for reviving democratic politics.”
If any country needs resilience, it is surely Japan, where, following the disasters of Fukushima in 2011 and Kumamoto in 2016, seismologists predict (with 70 percent probability) a Nankai Trough earthquake of an 8 or 9 level magnitude sometime in the next thirty years.
Following Fukushima, reactors have been reinforced, but only to withstand a direct sub-ground magnitude 6.5 quake. To make matters worse, seismologists reckon that Mount Fuji, a dormant volcano since 1707, could blow again at any time.
Despite the Abe government’s attempts to spin the “Three Arrows” programs and its “resilience” national mobilization slogan as something new, they largely follow the “construction state” (doken kokka) model of earlier governments, most famously that of Tanaka Kakuei, known for boondoggled, debt-financed, grandiose civil engineering projects and public works.
Like older programs, the new “resilience” regime still attaches priority to maximizing GDP growth and redistributing wealth through the circuits of conservative Liberal Democratic Party rule. Social need and environmental consequences remain secondary.
Its arrows carry no prescription for healing the social malaise of a country shedding three hundred thousand people per year and suffering chronic aging and childlessness. Some critics even refer to the Abe brand of economics as “idiotics” (“aho-nomics”) rather than “Abenomics”.
Typically, huge infrastructure projects are chosen as examples of “resilient” programs: the resumption of nuclear power generation on a large scale (including the ambition to embrace the entire nuclear cycle), the so-called Linear (or “maglev”) shinkansen rail, the New Tomei Expressway, and the Great Tohoku Seawall.
The first of these projects (on which work commenced in 2014) is a superconducting, magnetic levitation transport system, estimated to cost around nine trillion yen and planned to cut the journey time from Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka to forty minutes and one hour respectively, scheduled to open services to Nagoya in 2027 and to Osaka by 2045.
86 percent (246 kilometers) of the 286-kilometer Tokyo-Nagoya section is to be below ground, the “trains” hurtling through tunnels under the Japan Alps at speeds up to five hundred kilometers per hour and at a maximum depth of a staggering 1,400 meters.
The second project, a new Tokyo-Nagoya expressway running about ten kilometers inland from the existing one, costing around seven trillion yen ($70 billion), partially opened in 2012 and is due for completion in 2020.
The seawall (the third project) is to stretch for four hundred kilometers along the coasts of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, basically severing sea from land. It will be roughly ten meters high, forty meters wide at its base, and cost a trillion yen to construct.
Meanwhile, heavily engineered projects like the Yamba and Kawabe dams and the Iahaya reclamation and dike, though masquerading under words such as “kinshizen” or “tashizen” (near-nature or added nature) contain more of the shadow than the substance of resilience.
It is a decade and a half since I wrote the following about what I term Japan’s “construction state” or doken kokka, but with today’s talk of “resilience” it is as apt as ever:
Gradually . . . public-works infrastructure has been replaced by “extrastructure” — developments undertaken for their own sake . . . Japan now has more dams and roads per unit of land than the continental United States. Half its coastline and most of its rivers have been wrapped in concrete, 90 percent of its tidal wetlands have been drained and lost, its ground-water is drastically depleted and its bio-diversity under threat.
Particularly problematic is the Abe government’s continued commitment to nuclear energy. The core role in national energy generation provided by the country’s nuclear reactor grid, mostly suspended following the Fukushima catastrophe of 2011, has resumed.
The linear shinkansen trains — though the word “train” seems scarcely appropriate to the mostly underground, passenger-carrying rockets they will resemble — will require an energy input roughly three times that of the existing shinkansen super expresses and consequently the linear system will be an important customer for nuclear generated power.
It appears the central lesson of Fukushima — that the unstable Japanese archipelago is no place for nuclear power generation — has been quickly forgotten. “Nuclear resilience” may be the ultimate oxymoron.
It is almost three years since Prime Minister Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that everything (with respect to Fukushima) was “under control.” The evidence suggests otherwise.
The core of at least one reactor is still missing, while radioactivity from it and the other melted cores continues to leech into air, soil, and sea.
One credible study estimates Fukushima radioactive emissions to have been two to four times higher than Chernobyl and draws attention to the rising levels of thyroid cancer among children in particular. 131 cases have been confirmed in the Fukushima vicinity since 2014, together with 41 more suspected cases.
The significance of the medical data is contested, but the incidence of thyroid cancer among children in the Fukushima vicinity appears to be double that found among children in the Chernobyl vicinity in the wake of its 1986 catastrophe, even though the time span was much shorter in the Japanese case.
Matching the Abe message of shooting arrows to create a “new” and “resilient” society is the notion of “positive pacifism.” From September 2013, heedful of US warnings to desist from revisionist history and the quest for a uniquely “beautiful” Japan that its citizens should love, Abe stopped talking about shrugging off the husk of the postwar state and paid more attention to converting “pacifist” Japan into a “normal,” i.e., war-capable, state such as Washington had long urged.
He adopted a “National Security Council” on US lines, centralizing and removing the exercise of war powers from parliamentary scrutiny, and a Secrets Protection Law with draconian punishment for those, including investigative journalists, who would attempt to look too deeply into what their government was doing.
Abe also applied himself with gusto to constructing military facilities for the US Marine Corps on Okinawa and in Guam and the Marianas, and to the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) facilities throughout the Southwest Islands, designed to “contain” China. Such steps were calculated to please Washington.
Before the UN General Assembly, he began to flesh out the vague proposition of Japan as a “positive pacifist” country. In this scenario Japan would be “even more actively engaged in collective security measures, including peacekeeping operations.”
In keeping with this, Abe dropped the long-standing ban on weapons export and in July 2015 adopted a reinterpretation of Article 9 so that the right of “collective self-defense,” hitherto understood by all governments to forbid any combat role alongside its US “ally,” would constrain it no longer.
He then proceeded to adopt a package of security bills fleshing out these principles, scrapping the long-standing view of the Constitution and freeing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces for global missions alongside US forces.
Senator John McCain, chair of the US Armed Services Committee, spoke for many in the US government when he spelled out his understanding that this meant that the US could, in the future, look forward to Japan dispatching its Self-Defense Forces to Korea, the Middle East, and the South China Sea.
As the word “resilience” covered the nuclearizing and concreting of the archipelago, so “positive pacifism” supplanted constitutional pacifism.
The Constitution of 1947, as the country’s basic charter of identity and purpose, has long offended Prime Minister Abe. He disapproved of the US role in its genesis and its three core principles — popular sovereignty, basic human rights, and pacifism.
Abe is not alone in his dislike; fundamental revision has been on the agenda of the Liberal Democratic Party since its foundation in 1955. But it wasn’t until this year that the party has gained the necessary parliamentary two-thirds majority to make serious revision possible.
Of course, even if both houses of the Diet (Japan’s bicameral legislature) were to agree on a revision bill, it would — in accordance with Article 96 — have to be submitted to a national referendum and secure a majority vote.
Evidence suggests it is a long way from achieving that. Polls conducted immediately after the July election suggest that nearly half of Japanese people opposed revisions while only roughly 36 percent were in favor.
Furthermore, data suggests that even many of those who support some kind of revision, simply on grounds of the American role in the existing document, would be uneasy at some of the items on the LDP wish list: the substitution of reference to Japan’s own “history, culture, and tradition” for universal human rights, the qualification of “rights” by requirement of conformity to “public welfare” or the actual substitution of “rights” by “duties,” and the conferral upon the Prime Minister of the power to suspend the Constitution in the case of a “state of emergency.”
And as for Article 9, many surveys have attested to the deep roots it has sunk in public sentiment. Its evisceration in order to convert the existing Self-Defense Forces into a “National Defense Army” with the right to possess and deploy force in the service of the nation would be unlikely to set many Japanese hearts alight.
Even without revision, Japan is already far from the pacifism declared in Article 9. It is one of the world’s top military spenders,ranking roughly fifth after the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, and above Britain, France, or India.
As an American “client state,” Japan has supported and provided facilities for US wars from Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. It pays an annual subsidy, direct and indirect, to the Pentagon of roughly $7 billion (on top of its “own” military budget of five trillion yen or around $48 billion).
During the Cold War era it served as “a major US logistics center for nuclear warfare in Asia,” and to this day it insists on incorporation in the US nuclear weapons-based security system under the principle of “extended deterrence” (the “umbrella”).
With his two-thirds parliamentary majority, and continuing high levels of public support (55 percent by the latest survey), Abe stands at Japan’s helm in a position of unparalleled power. It is this Japan, already “armed to the teeth” and embracing the US nuclear weapons system, which Abe hopes to free up, to become a “normal” force-maintaining and force-wielding country.
It would be a Japan whose political economy in the name of “resilience” gives pride of place to the nuclear industry and the linear shinkansen, and whose military forces, freed by a revised constitution to participate in future coalitions of the willing, serve the cause of “positive pacifism.”