Tokyo – Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is racing against time.
His recent landslide victory was a vote against the fumbling incumbent Democratic Party of Japan, which was from its inception a collection of diametrically opposed ideological partners. It scooped up leftwing socialists and disgruntled conservatives who left Abe’s “government” coalition headed by the Liberal-Democrat Party which had ruled Japan since the end of the American Occupation in 1955.
But Mr. Abe waged a positive campaign too – taking hawkish stands against the increasing implied threat from China and North Korea. And although he never quite said it, he hinted at restoring Japans’ nuclear power supplying a quarter of is massive energy requirement as the world’s third largest economy.
After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011 when a once-in-a-century earthquake and tsunami hit four reactors in the northwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu, all nuclear power was closed down. The Japanese public with its own peculiar history as the only victims of a nuclear weapon was horrified to find they had a new “hot” area around the former plants, expelling a local population of 160,000 refugees throughout the archipelago as well as crippling important local links in the world’ complicated worldwide globalization supply chain.
The response of the DPJ government to the crisis was seen not unlike the Bush administration’s New Orleans fiasco.
Slow rectification of a few nuclear reactors – against a massive popular campaign by Mr. Abe’s opponents – has kept nuclear power to less than 5 percent of total electrical consumption, boosting an astronomical import bill for fossil fuels, none of which Japan produces in significant quantity.
The reactivation process also awaits a massive and complicated study of new regulatory requirements including consultation with U.S.and French exports which is only scheduled to be ready by July. After that a new set of regulations are promised for the industry with calls for a German-like end to nuclear power altogether in 30 years.
Not only until if and when the new plethora of U.S. gas exports come to the rescue, Japan’s economy – perhaps as a part of the U.S. proposed Trans Pacific Partner common market plan bitterly opposed by Japanese agricultural lobby – is in hock to the always volatile Mideast politics of the Arab, Iran and the relatively new and volatile African producers.
The import bill of billions – economists reckon as high as an additional $38 billion – a year is the economic burden heavy in a time of worldwide recession and downturn for Japan’s still export-led economy.
Mr. Abe is gambling now he can produce at least the perception of an economic recovery from Japan’s more or less stagnant two decades. But he hasn’t got a lot of leverage. He has introduced a larger version of what has come to be the usual annual supplemental budget and pressured Japan’s only nominally central bank to take a leaf from the U.S. Fed with “quantitative easing”.
To paraphrase Nixon’s famous quip,”We are all quantitative easers now!”
In the past, supplemental budgets – which have pushed Japan’s debt to a staggering one-and-a-half times its gross national product – have been used for infrastructure. But in this incredibly tidy little country, the joke is that having straightened, re-channeled, deepened and embarked every waterway in the country, new infrastructure projects would have to take instruction from the environmentalists to restore these rivers, creeks and bays to their original condition to create jobs. There is even a question for some observers whether, precisely because it is based on government bonds sold almost exclusively to the Japanese investor, the stimulus is not stimulating the macroeconomy.
And, of course, hanging over any question of Japanese domestic economic growth is the onrushing demographic catastrophe with current estimates holding only grim predictions of a population aging faster than those of the other industrial countries and China with its much greater concomitant lack of consumer demand.
The race is toward the July upper house elections. Abe got a kick in the shins when President Barack Obama refused the customary “aisatsu” [protocol] visit to Washington when the Japanese prime minister had informally announced that he was a candidate. The suspicion is the Obamaites might think Abe too hawkish. That was confirmed when Assistant Secretary State Kurt Campbell on a tour of East Asia publicly criticized Japan’s position on the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Campbell’s statement struck Japanese observers as less than helpful when he said Washington took no position on the eventual outcome of the issue. In fact, the Japanese-occupied uninhabited islands were specifically included in maps accompanying the Okinawa Reversion Treaty when in the postwar period the U.S. returned the largest southern islands in its archipelago to Tokyo. Campbell, generally known as a “Realist” on China, made the statements in Japan to the media to punctuate the Obama “pivot” to East Asia to meet the Chinese threat.
Looming large is the energy question since there is a suspicion larger reserves of gas and possibly oil lie near the islands. They could also be a key to vast reserves of hydromethane, a fossil gas combination lying at deep ocean floor levels around he Japanese Islands and which some scientists believe could turn into something like the U.S. shale gas and oil bonanza.
None of this will be on the ballot, most not even discussed, when Abe – and his opportunist coalition partners, the Soka Gokkai, political extension of postwar neo-Buddhism – have a good chance to take the 50 or so seats needed for a majority in the upper house. With that, Abe and his conservative allies want to make fundamental changes in Japan’s postwar legacy.
He wants to amend the MacArthur-dictated “peace constitution” to permit Japan’s small but high-powered defense forces to work on a multilateral regional basis with its American ally, now nominally limited to only the defense of Japan which even under its provisions is a stretch. Abe must have – along with intestinal fortitude – an upper house majority to amend the constitution.
And there could be other security benefits. Removing restrictions on export of arms would permit Japan’s incredibly costly domestic armaments purchases which because it insists on importing technology rather than cheaper American exports, could go into business in the region and the world as a major player.
No wonder Japan’s remnant but powerful pacifist lobby and their sometime skeletal following, are in a frenzy, hoping Abe’s economic stimulus will come a cropper sooner rather than later.
Sol W. Sanders, (firstname.lastname@example.org), writes the ‘Follow the Money’ column for The Washington Times on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He is also a contributing editor for WorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.