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Shi Yongming
Abe Extends the Right Hand
The Japanese prime minister reshuffles cabinet ahead of constitutional pledge
By Shi Yongming | NO. 33 AUGUST 18, 2016

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (second right front) and his cabinet ministers debut in Tokyo after the latest reshuffle on August 3 (XINHUA)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finalized his cabinet reshuffle on August 3, his third such maneuver since he took office in 2012. Through the latest reorganization, Abe seeks to create a cabinet favorable to the continuation of the leader's policy.

The semi-new cabinet—nine of the previous 19 cabinet ministers retained their positions—is also notable for the increased prevalence of right-wing sentiment, embodied most visibly by the eye-catching appointment of Tomomi Inada as defense minister.

Looking right

The core purpose of Abe's reshuffle is to maintain stability in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and consolidate the leader's position through the rotation of ministers among the handful of top-level cabinet positions.

The bulk of Abe's cabinet ministers are part of a cross-party coalition of conservative parliamentarians. By and large, they support Abe's ideology and policies, thus Abe's position has been strengthened following the changes. Among the 19 ministers, 13 are part of the coalition, the largest number in Abe's cabinet since 2012.

The move is likely to boost Abe's efforts to amend Japan's pacifist constitution adopted after World War II (WWII) as an effort to prevent Japan from entering into war again in the future. At a conservative coalition assembly last November, the prime minister called for unity in altering the legal framework established after WWII. Having gained seats in July's Upper House election, Abe's ruling coalition now controls over two thirds of seats in both chambers, a vital step for constitutional change, since it requires such a majority to initiate an amendment. Particular focus is set to be paid to Article 9, the heart of the constitution, which stipulates that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

Inada, 57 years old, may be only Japan's second ever female defense minister, but she appears to be more hawkish than many of her male counterparts. For example, in a press interview last year, she advocated the country's young men serving in the Self-Defense Forces to hone their willpower. She even suggested war is the noblest religious cause for the soul searching of human beings.

Inada, an unmistakably right-wing politician, is a key Abe supporter. She has repeatedly visited the nation's Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to Japan's war dead, including war criminals. She also supports historical revisionism that relinquishes Japan from responsibility for its imperial atrocities and denies Japanese aggression during WWII, questioning the verdict passed by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, a tribunal set up in 1946 to try the leaders of Imperial Japan. She even doubts the Nanjing Massacre and argues that Japanese soldiers did not force women from Korea, China and other countries to serve as sex slaves to the country's imperial forces in the 1930s and 40s.

Apart from sharing similar political views, Inada's appointment was also made to further entrench Abe's position and enhance his longevity in the post. Many of Abe's political motives over the last four years stem from his desire to hold onto his job for as long as possible so that the policies he helps craft can remain effective for years to come. Though it is reported that he should leave his current role as LDP president in 2018, Abe expressed his wish to

remain in charge until at least 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic Games. Inada is viewed not only as a worthy ally, but also as an ideal successor to the Japanese prime minister.

Representatives of the opposition parties protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's attempt to modify the country's pacifist constitution in a rally in Tokyo on May 3 (XINHUA)

Political plight

The aforementioned constitutional amendment is one of Abe's core political objectives. Following July's election and the cabinet reshuffle, Japan's leader is primed for initiating constitutional reform. The legal framework which limits military use to self-defense will most probably be abandoned.

Abe insists the 1947 Constitution must be amended, having been imposed on the nation by the United States and its allies during the occupation of Japan after WWII. However, two critical facets of the constitution, namely democracy and pacifism, will be in the line of fire. What will happen to Japan if these are removed?

Two major political changes during the Abe administration have been the centralization of power and the erosion of press freedom. Abe has tightened his grip on the media, exemplified by his suppression of The Asahi Shimbun for its reporting on "comfort women," essentially women forced into sexual slavery in territory occupied by the Japanese Army before and during WWII.

However, the Japanese media can wantonly release reports catering to populism and nationalism. Recently, some Japanese media preposterously asserted that China would occupy Okinawa in 2020 if the United States withdrew troops from the island. The report even claimed that thousands of Chinese visitors to Okinawa are spies. Echoing Japan's newly released defense white paper, the report paints China as threat. Such hysteria serves Abe's political objectives to amend the constitution and expand the military as well as to deflect resentment against U.S. military bases.

The prime minister is trying to fundamentally alter Japan's post-war political system and re-establish the nation as a global military power. However, his ambition is hampered by the economic downturn. Abe frequently ramps up security fears to shift the public's attention away from the country's economic problems.

Abenomics, a three-pronged economic stimulus promoted by Abe, has proved less effective than he promised. His policies have led to an inflated yen, contributing to the widening gap between Japan's rich and poor. Since the Plaza Accord was signed in 1985 by the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain and France—the world's five largest economies at the time—to depreciate the dollar against the yen and the German mark, Japan has fallen into long-term economic stagnation. More than three decades on, the country's domestic markets remain stagnant.

To fix Japan's stuttering economy, structural reform is essential. Regional cooperation will help the nation to implement such reform, yet Japan's right-wing faction hampers the forging of productive relations with China and South Korea. To restore the Japanese dream of Asian hegemony, Abe chooses to take a confrontational approach to China rather than capitalizing on the mutual benefits of cooperation.

Overall, Abe's cabinet has become more conservative, and his hardline policies on media and defense are becoming more extreme, while Abenomics grows increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Consequently, Japan is now more volatile than it was at the beginning of Abe's tenure.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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