by Mike Kulma
September 13, 2007
Shinzo Abe stepped down Wednesday as prime minister of Japan amid a dismal approval rating, loss of Japan's upper house of parliament in summer elections, and ongoing scandals. While the Liberal Democratic Party searches for a successor (election for such to take place on September 19th), Japan is faced with a number of important and possibly imperative questions moving forward.
On the domestic political front, is there a candidate who can fill the shoes of former Prime Minister Koizumi, who had the unique ability to cross party lines (even his own) to get things done, while keeping public support? Abe failed, miserably at times, but is there a good alternative, and what does it mean for Japan if there is not?
On the foreign policy front, will Japan continue to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan against the heavy opposition of politicians from the Democratic Party? Equally important, will Abe's successor continue to mend bridges between Japan, China, and Korea, or return to a policy of annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which heightened tensions in the region? As much of the focus will inevitably be placed on the first two questions above, it is the last that may have the greatest long-term impact.
While economic relations were strong, political relations between Japan and China and Japan and South Korea were at historic low points prior to Abe coming to power. The historical impact of Japan's wartime actions in China and South Korea still runs deep in these countries and rising nationalism in both further fuels the fire ignited by the slightest political misstep.
Further, as a result of former Prime Minister Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, issues of textbook revisions, and suggestions that Japan become a more "normal" power (read: take on a stronger military role in the region), political relations had soured to levels not seen in quite some time, prior to Abe. This is the international environment into which Abe stepped upon taking office in the fall of 2006. Bucking this trend, and feeding off his reputation as a strong nationalist (a la Richard Nixon and China), Abe moved quickly to repair relations with both countries.
In October 2006, in his first overseas trip as Prime Minister, Abe traveled to China and then on to South Korea, in an effort to mend relations. By doing so, he became the first Japanese leader to visit Beijing since 2001. In fact, Abe's trip to China and South Korea was taken even before he visited the United States, a significant statement in and of itself. Building on this momentum, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reciprocated with a visit to Japan in the spring of 2007. While all wounds are far from healed, and there are still questions surrounding Japan's military efforts in Afghanistan and whether they are suggestive of a remilitarizing Japan, the steps taken by Abe to mend relations with China and South Korea were steps in the right direction and important for major powers in an area of the world growing more significant by the day.
Abe's replacement will be faced with some significant choices on this front. Go back to the Koizumi visits to Yasukuni, thereby risking the ire of China, South Korea, and others, putting the relationships again on rocky terrain—or continue on the path followed by Abe, which suggest the possibility of a more peaceful and friendly environment in Northeast Asia.
If the former, the biggest losers in Abe's resignation may be Japan's neighbors.
Mike Kulma is Director of Policy Programs at Asia Society.