Saturday, August 25, 2007

The decider reflects (or not)

Mr. Abe has returned from his Asian tour (this is the term used in the Japanese press; apparently Japan hasn't quite returned to Asia), and is getting ready to announce his new cabinet on Monday.

There are few hints as to the comprehensive makeup of the new cabinet and LDP executive, but there are a few people who look certain to be offered positions. A number of sources suggest that Machimura Nobutaka, former foreign minister and head of the Machimura faction to which Mr. Abe belongs will be named chief cabinet secretary, Aso Taro will be named LDP secretary-general, and Yano Tetsuro, Upper House member and former vice minister of foreign affairs, will be given an unspecified position of power. Komeito's Fuyushiba Tetsuzou will likely stay on as transport minister. (Mainichi)

Yomiuri suggests that in light of allegations about funding improprieties, Mr. Suga may find himself out of a job, and indicates that ministerial portfolios will be given to Nakagawa Shoichi, Niwa Yuuya, and former foreign minister Komura Masahiko.

But beyond the roster of the new cabinet, the big question is whether Mr. Abe has actually learned anything after a month of "reflecting upon that which should be reflected." In the event that Mr. Abe has not yet completed his reflecting, Asahi's editorial today suggests five ways in which Mr. Abe should reflect on last month's loss, although Asahi reiterates its opinion that the surest way for the prime minister to reflect on the defeat would be to leave office entirely.

Asahi's five: (1) Know the importance of personnel, (2) be mindful of the ability to manage crises, (3) be responsible for your speech, (4) review basic policy, (5) abandon arrogance (i.e., not ramming legislation through the Diet).

It is revealing that Asahi's advice to the young prime minister have more to do with image management than with policy; this suggests, correctly I think, that the root of the LDP's defeat last month was poor political leadership, not bad policy. The message in this editorial is that being a political novice, having served in the Diet for a mere thirteen years before coming prime minister, Mr. Abe needs to skilled political operators around him to prevent him from making amateur mistakes. Asahi is quick to point out that it is not calling for a return to the rule of the factions, but simply a cabinet staffed with politicians chosen for their political skills, not for their loyalty to the prime minister.

Whether Mr. Abe will actually change his ways remains to be seen, but I remain skeptical. His makeup as a politician is rooted in abstract ideology — politics of the bird's eye view — not the messy busy of governing, which means being sensitive to the public and other actors in the political system. Accordingly, his rhetoric, rather than inspiring support and trust, just leaves listeners confused, asking questions like Asahi's: "What is a beautiful country?" "Does repudiating the postwar mean he wants to return to the prewar regime?" There was nothing inevitable about the LDP defeat in the Upper House elections. But Mr. Abe misused his bully pulpit from day one, preferring meaningless slogans to inspiring, transformational leadership, tolerating incompetence from his advisers, and otherwise preferring standing pat to using the Lower House super-majority to address the concerns of Japanese citizens. He wouldn't have had to do much. As Mr. Koizumi showed, the illusion of reform — saying the right words — can go a long way towards rallying support for an agenda.

In other words, the problem with the Abe Cabinet has been Mr. Abe himself, and the reshuffle will do nothing to change that. The new cabinet may allow Mr. Abe to muddle through indefinitely, but arguably Japan can do better.


Anonymous said...

Now you're scaring me. Abe's the problem, not his policy? Even the Asahi likes his beautiful policy of pushing constitutional reform, undoing the postwar regime, and restraining capitalism?

So a smarter, smoother, older political operator will do the trick? Gosh, time to move, again.

Japan Observer said...

The amazing thing is that Asahi wasn't more critical of the policy approach of the Abe Cabinet. But then again, it has been so vague that there's very little to criticize.

Taro Tanaka said...

Fellows, we are in Japan. When analysing politics we need to start with personal performance and not policy goals. ABE has indeed taken the dry policy-oriented approach and been very specific about his goals when driving Education and constitutional reform. His approach has been policy oriented but way out of contact with the concerns of the man on the street and ill managd by inexperienced people who lack POLITICAL not POLICY expertise. Nonaka puts his finger on this in a recent interview for the NIKKEI. Asahi seems, for once, to have at least got a part of the problem right. See for the interview with Nonaka.