Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A neo-nationalist crack in Abe’s grand strategy

How a preschool scandal could curtail Shinzo Abe's ambitions.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivering a speech at the Liberal Democratic Party's convention, March 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivering a speech at the Liberal Democratic Party's convention, March 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)
Published 30 Mar 2017   Follow @psephy

As we approach the third month of the Trump Administration, experienced observers of world politics continue to be intrigued, curious and at times perhaps perplexed. Indeed, those who like their international politics with a little chaos theory are probably in their element.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's swing through Southeast Asia and Australia in January, viewed with a little distance, and additional commentary in Tokyo, gives us some interesting perspectives. As much as we might like to apply a coherent veneer to Abe's late 2016 diplomacy (a rendezvous with Putin, a final meeting with Obama at Pearl Harbor, a dash to the newly-elected US President Trump on the way to APEC in Peru), a generous interpretation would depict a shrewd leader shoring up multiple bases in an increasingly complex security environment. Or, preparing for a snap election (which didn't happen).

Abe's February meeting with Trump lifted the bar in the eyes of some commentators. Here was an assertive, determined Prime Minister meeting with the new President, seeking to establish a close relationship (perhaps reminiscent of the 'Ron-Yasu' relationship of the Reagan-Nakasone era). Others saw it as a somewhat obsequious response to Trump's economic demands – Abe indicated that the investment plans of Japanese firms would be part of an US job creation effort. Much was made of the 'golfing summit' in Florida and the public discussion of North Korean missile launches in front of guests in the Mar-a-Lago dining room. 

Initial commentary back in Japan included that of political historian professor Makoto Iokibe, who offered parallels with the Nixon Shock (when US President Richard Nixon sought rapprochement with Beijing without consulting Tokyo, viewed by the latter as a serious snub in the passage of Japan-US relations), an event seared into Japanese political culture in much the same way 'The Dismissal' continues to resonate in Australia. The 'Trump Shock', suggested Iokibe, shall pass and steadier relations shall resume.

For a moment then, analysts might have been forgiven for imagining alternative spheres of interest. With a wary eye on North Korea and an eyebrow raised towards the US, nations in the East Asian sphere are contemplating what might happen with a lesser-US presence in the short term at least.

Abe is known for a pushing a stronger military agenda. Indeed, some argued that a Trump victory would give Japan an opportunity to examine its dependence on US security. Domestic commentary is split between arguing for a more independent Japan reliant on its own defence force or, as supporters of Article 9 continue to agitate for, the pursuit of a more neutral, less belligerent stance. But like most US-allied countries, Japan has been drawn ever more strongly into the terror-security trope of the 21st century that has tended to marginalise the impetus for neutrality. And Abe has used the current security environment to back his vision.

For now, however, Abe's strategic diplomacy has taken a major blow over a domestic issue that may yet cost him his position. A financial scandal involving a preschool in Osaka that promotes a pre-war nationalist ethos may curb Abe's grand strategy. Television images of four-year-olds reciting pre-war rescripts on education and patriotism appear to have had greater impact than Abe speaking with Putin, meeting with Trump, or appearing in military garb at Japan Self-Defense Forces parades.

What began as allegations of a heavily-discounted sale of government land to a private educational institution has escalated to suggestions of donations from Mr and Mrs Abe to the school principal, a proposal to name the school after Abe, and Mrs Abe being appointed honorary principal. in other words, the trajectory indicates an enmeshment between a private school and the Office of the Prime Minister that even scandal-weary Japanese voters might find hard to accept.

In February, as the scandal was breaking, Abe declared he would resign as Prime Minister and as a parliamentarian should he or his wife be found to have engaged in any wrongdoing. Just a few weeks later, and following the appearance of the school principal before a parliamentary committee, the key players are now skirting around definitions of 'involvement', of the 'private' versus 'public' role of Mrs Abe, and the function of the civil service staff assigned to oversee her public duties. These efforts to isolate Abe from the detail of the allegations appear somewhat contrived.

Abe might be able to stay a barge pole's length from the centre of the scandal but he is unlikely to emerge unscathed. Recent opinion polls show a drop in the support that has, until now, been his safety net in convincing the naysayers in the party to get behind him. That the scandal 'broke' around the time that the Liberal Democratic Party formally extended the maximum term of the party President, and therefore Prime Minister (ergo Abe) from the previous two terms of three years to three consecutive terms of three years has hard-nosed observers looking at the play behind the curtains. Not everyone in the LDP is happy with Abe's nationalist push. Perhaps the prospect of an Abe government for the foreseeable future, in the present circumstances, was too much for some in the party; two three-year terms were tolerable but three terms a step too far. Interestingly, Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, who many see as Abe's hand-picked protégé and who also supports his nationalist views, has herself been drawn into the scandal. If Abe succumbs, it is difficult to see her remaining in her post.

Abe's first term as Prime Minister lasted just 12 months. In 2007 he resigned, a move attributed to ill health and poor polling. His comeback in 2012 was a stark contrast, and his security strategy has dominated his external interests as much as his 'Abenomics' has captured domestic attention. Just this week, he was on the evening TV news bulletins having succeeded in getting his budget through but avoiding all questions regarding the Osaka preschool. His visage was a little greyer than usual, the scandal machinations perhaps taking their toll.

The preschool scandal will have knock-on effects for Abe's remaining tenure and the role Japan might have in refiguring regional strategic relations. While Abe's visit in January might have been heralded for developing closer strategic links with Australia in Abe's own image, there may now be time to take stock of how an Australia-Japan 'strategic' partnership with less nationalism and more conciliation might help shape an East Asian region seeking to cope with 'Trump Shock'.

You may also be interested in