On December 26, 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended activities organized by Keidanren, Japan’s powerful business lobby group that represents all the native large-sized multinational corporations (MNCs). Attending Keidanren’s activities was crucial because Keidanren’s membership of large MNCs is a traditional power base for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), forming an iron triangle of big businesses, politicians, and government.
PM Abe needs the cooperation of Keidanren for persuading Japan’s large MNCs to raise their wages to stimulate consumer spending. These are all necessary ingredients for Abenomics to work and run its full course. Labor and management cooperation are necessary for such salary raises to go through smoothly. PM Abe seemed to suggest that the ground can be sweetened for such salary hikes to take place through the use of tax cuts for companies that meet certain preconditions. The carrot is raised for companies to stop hoarding profits and increase the salaries of their salarymen to spur domestic consumption.
PM Abe then welcomed the New Year by paying an official visit to the Ise Jinggu, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, where he issued statements and held a press conference. The visit to the Ise Shrine is a tradition that has been practiced by all the Prime Ministers of Japan.
Early in 2018, good news has emerged for the Japanese economy as its recovery appears to be on track and customer orders for its products remain healthy. In his New Year reflection, PM Abe noted the following points: the year 2018 marks one and a half centuries since the game-changing Meiji Restoration of 1868 when Japan replaced the feudal Shogunate system with modernization and industrialization, followed by Taisho democracy, corporatism, and post-1945 liberal democracy. Japan emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolationism and successfully transformed from a pre-modern society to an industrial one, the first in East Asia to do so.
PM Abe invoked the spirit and power of the Meiji reformers who turned an isolationist and fragmented country into a major world economy. In Japan’s early modern period, Meiji reformers, including women, contributed to the emergence of Japan as a major East Asian entity by training women and admitting them into institutions of higher learning. Japan sent missions to the leading Western nations to study their technologies, management systems, political mechanisms, and lifestyles to harness the power of progress and modernization. These were then indigenized according to local conditions.
The 1868 Meiji Restoration was also the time when socioeconomic divides were re-configured. Samurais became modern administrators, merchants were no longer at the bottom end of the social hierarchy, and education was no longer restricted to males. Overall, PM Abe’s New Year message was a rallying call to his fellow countrymen to harness the Meiji Restoration energies for an overhaul of Japan, with intentions to channel the potential of young Japanese.
Another agenda in PM Abe’s New Year address was, quite unsurprisingly, the Korean Peninsula crisis. PM Abe said Japan could not accept North Korean actions that threatened to destabilize the region, and he upheld Japan’s long-time belief in working with the global community to manage North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile design and production. The designated strategy is to keep up political pressure on Pyongyang in coordination with the global community.
PM Abe expressed his hope to have the Japanese people achieve their full potential and capabilities to tackle the economic challenges ahead.
PM Abe also tried to entice Pyongyang to respond to the international community’s call by painting a potential scenario of an economically prosperous North Korea if its missile and nuclear program were to cease. The Japanese leadership believed that there is a lot of potential amongst the North Korean people for economic development if only their government is willing to work with the international community and adopt the right attitudes and policies to end their economic hardship.
Traditionally, the winter season is a period of intense energy and fuel usage for household heating and the international community has chastised North Korea for restricting the supply of such necessities to the leadership in Pyongyang. Therefore, the winter season is likely to present challenges to the regime. It is also useful for the major powers like the US, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan to observe if the internationally imposed economic sanctions have a credible effect on the regime in moderating its behavior to fit international norms.
Reflecting Japan’s sense of crisis, PM Abe believed that the situation in the immediate confines of Japan is at its most serious stage since 1945. To assuage his countrymen’s fear of North Korean missiles, PM Abe is keen to strengthen Japan’s diplomacy and defense forces to stabilize the security situation facing his country. Unresolved abductions is also an important issue in Tokyo-Pyongyang relations. In the past, Pyongyang used mini-submarines and other means to kidnap Japanese citizens and bring them to North Korea. Some of the abductees ended up as Japanese language teachers against their will. PM Abe reassured his fellow countrymen that his government is exerting the full extent of diplomatic measures to resolve these issues.
Domestically, PM Abe looked at providing more welfare for the Japanese people, including tackling problems like the fast-growing elderly population and the rapidly-declining birth rate. As national crises, these developments are considered to be as severe as the North Korean issue. Acknowledging the severity of the problem, PM Abe urged his countrymen to tackle the issue from this new year onwards. Social welfare policy reforms were on the election agenda when PM Abe was overwhelmingly elected in last year’s snap election. The message seemed to be future-oriented and also one that prioritizes the importance of looking after the nation and its people.
PM Abe expressed his hope to have the Japanese people achieve their full potential and capabilities to tackle the economic challenges ahead. This means that the former buffer pools of part-time labor, including women, must be tapped in order to mitigate Japan’s shrinking labor force and projected labor shortage. For example, increasing day care and nursing facilities are one way to help working mothers. Labor reforms to promote women’s participation and increasing productivity are also in place to tackle these challenges. The crux of the changes is for all Japanese, regardless of gender, to achieve parity with each other.
One leadership issue for PM Abe is the end of his leadership term in September 2018, although many expect his renewal to be almost certain. After all, PM Abe has been one of the most sustainable and enduring strong leaders in recent years. Together with former PM Junichiro Koizumi, they are regarded as leaders displaying political longevity, savvy political skills, and gifted with strong readings of the political currents on the ground.