Abe in nationalist warrior role amid voter apathy

The PM’s trip to the frontline of Japan’s dispute with Beijing shows his priorities

With his puppy-eyed stare, timorous voice and famously delicate stomach, Shinzo Abe is an unlikely nationalist warrior.

Just days before tomorrow's general election, however, Japan's prime minister flew to the country's southwestern fringes to rattle sabres, pledging to "not give an inch" in a bitter standoff with neighbour China.

“Provocations on our territorial land, waters and sovereignty are continuing,” said Abe on a coastguard ship at Ishigaki island, 170km (106 miles) from a clump of uninhabited rocks that have kept the two Asian superpowers at loggerheads for 10 months. Abe called the Senkaku islands Japan’s “unique territory, historically and in terms of international law”.

Abe's decision to take his election campaign to the frontline of Japan's dispute with Beijing is an indication of his priorities after tomorrow's upper house poll. His Liberal Democrats (LDP) are expected to cruise to victory, ending a divided parliament and giving the party its tightest grip on power since 2007. Abe says he will focus on the economy, pulling Japan out of its long decline and pushing a set of inflationary policies dubbed "Abenomics" that reject the global consensus for austerity.


But some predict a return of Abe’s obsessions: rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution, beautifying its history, beefing up patriotic education and confronting rising China. He has already been accused of fanning hate speech in Japan, following provocative demonstrations in Tokyo against the city’s immigrant population, in which right-wingers have called for Koreans to be killed.

"The prime minister will do what he wants if he wins the election," Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, warned this week.

She predicts that the post-victory LDP will worsen already frayed ties with Beijing, particularly if Abe fulfils a longstanding ambition to tear up the war-renouncing article nine of the constitution.

Abe has trod carefully since taking office again last December, steering a line between pressure from right-wing supporters who want him to pursue a more hawkish agenda and the need to ensure smooth ties with Beijing, Japan’s most important trade partner. But diplomatic disaster has rarely seemed far off.

Colonial wars
During opening speeches for the election campaign, Abe again refused to label Japan's colonial wars in Asia "aggressive", infuriating both China and South Korea. He has hinted at rewriting Japan's 1995 apology to Asia for these colonial wars and even at rejecting the conclusions of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war.

Polls show very little public support for the prime minister’s pet projects. Most voters say they want the government to tackle Japan’s growing economic and social problems: falling wages, the world’s fastest-ageing population and largest public debt. More than half the population wants the nation to scrap its nuclear reactors – the LDP is the only party that supports nuclear power.

Why, then, is the election considered a fait accompli? One reason is voter apathy. Turnout is expected to hit a record low. Voters opted for the liberal-left Democratic Party of Japan from 2009 to 2012 and are now back in their comfort zone with the LDP, which ruled Japan for most of the half-century after 1955. Another reason is Abe's bid to jumpstart Japan's stalled $5.9 trillion (€4.5 trillion) economy.

Abe will be under intense pressure after the election to keep the economy humming, and to rein in his nationalist instincts.

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo