WALTER HAMILTON. When all else fails, try Pearl Harbor

Dec 6, 2016

Prime Minister Abe of Japan is running out of tricks, but there is no viable alternative.

Nobody could accuse Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of being indolent. When he’s not popping out of a chimney at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony, he’s dashing off to Trump Tower in New York or rehearsing Russian phrases for a get-together with Vladimir Putin (alert: the last item is a proto-fact*). Now he’s about to fly off to Hawaii to ‘be the first Japanese leader to pay his respects at Pearl Harbor’.

Do I detect a note of desperation? Here’s why.

Abe is running out of places to hide the pea in the Great Thimble Trick of Japanese politics. Things are just not working out for his administration, and he knows that the Japanese public knows and––shock of shocks––might get around to doing something about it.

  1. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are fast losing their gleam as the ‘Let’s Feel Good About Ourselves’ Festival its boosters, notably Abe, said they’d be. With still four years to go, the Games budget has ballooned to ¥2 trillion (A$25bn) (the figure reported in Japan; much higher figures have been used in some news sites, but the absence of a breakdown makes it impossible to know whether these include non-Olympics-specific items). Recently, IOC Vice-President, Australian John Coates was in Tokyo seeking budget cuts––which the organizing committee (Abe’s friends) might have done better to find before Coates turned up.
  1. The dash to Broadway to present President-elect Trump with a gold-plated golf club got Abe an early ‘photo op.’ but no useful gift in return. He went to tell Trump that the TPP was a really good deal. But during a week when Trump’s other election promises were being jettisoned onto Fifth Avenue like confetti, that one bit of paper wasn’t going anywhere. No deal, hombre.
  1. ‘OK, watch my hands…’ Next thimble in play is Vladimir Putin who is due in Japan this month for a long overdue, much delayed visit, ten days before Christmas. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t celebrate the birth of Christ until January 7th, so there’ll be no gifts for Abe this year. The Prime Minister had hoped to clinch a deal to resolve a territorial dispute over several islands north of Hokkaido that the Soviet Union seized in 1945. But all indications are that Vlad, too, is not for dealing. (Those looking for a Trumpish surprise, a la ‘Formosa calling’, misread Putin’s DNA, I think. Showing his dialling hand, last month he installed surface-to-air missile systems on two of the disputed islands.)

The really awkward thing for Abe is that the two leaders are also supposed to sign off on an economic cooperation agreement; one which, when Moscow inevitably hails the deal as a ‘win-win’, is likely to be interpreted by some Japanese to mean ‘Russia wins, and, yes, Russia wins’.

  1. Where to next? The obvious answer for any Japanese looking for a well-earned break is Hawaii. So, a fortnight after he meets Putin, Abe will squeeze in another diplomat coup. Keep those thimbles moving. He’s off to lay a wreath at the USS Arizona monument in Honolulu and hold his last governmental talks with the outgoing US President (I should clarify, I definitely mean Barack Obama).

Abe’s Hawaiian trip is not altogether a surprise. Following Obama’s historic visit to pay respects at the A-Bomb Memorial in Hiroshima in May, a ‘reciprocal’ visit of the sort was on the cards. (Abe’s wife made a personal stop to the floating monument at Pearl Harbor in August.)

Given this weighty precedent, it might seem churlish of me to suggest an element of expediency lurks behind Abe’s itinerary. How much attention will it deflect from a disappointing Putin summit? Is there a dash of contrition in his gesture––not only for the surprise attack of December 1941 but also because Abe’s recent dash into the golden sanctum of Trump Tower might have looked a teensy-weensy-bit fawning, precipitous, opportunistic and discourteous to Obama (reports out of Tokyo that traced screams coming from the US Embassy to the office of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, cannot be discounted by this correspondent)?

Looming behind these bewildering diplomatic manoeuvres, and threatening to force its way nearer to the ballot box, is the Japanese economy: the great big unfulfilled promise of the Abe administration.

Trump is bad news for Abe, starting with the jettisoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Clinton, I am confident, would have re-badged it, her free-trade credentials being what they are/were). Weak domestic demand (viz. consumer consumption and business investment) remains a drag on Japan’s GDP growth, four years into so-called Abenomics; the better-than-expected third-quarter 0.9% (annualized 2.2%) economic growth just posted was all export-driven. The fall in the value of the yen versus the US dollar following Trump’s election will help exports further, in the short term. The medium and longer-term outlook––if Trump follows through on his protectionist mantra––appears ominous for Japan’s trade balance and growth.

Before all this unwinding comes too sharply into focus, there is every chance Prime Minister Abe will dissolve the lower house of the Diet for a snap election early in 2017. His public approval ratings are high. He must believe they cannot go much higher, while they could start to fall sharply.

As I have written many times in this blog, the most valuable buffer for the LDP-led government is the lack of a viable alternative. That has not changed. The issue, then, is not whether a democratic process will operate smoothly to deliver a new government with fresh ideas, lending renewed hope to the public. That is out of the question for now. The issue, rather, is how much the absence of confidence, the absence of a real policy debate, the absence of a fully participating electorate will further erode the nation’s economic situation, and store up a greater calamity for the future.

The thimbles have to stop some time. Eventually the showman has to reveal the pea.

  • A proto-fact is what used to be known as a supposition, an educated guess or, at least, wishful thinking. After the debacle of the US media’s coverage of the recent election, I thought the concept needed a new moniker.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.

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