Japan's New Prime Minister Eyes Next Year's Elections

Date: 09-27-2006

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HONOLULU (Sept. 27) – Shinzo Abe became Japan’s 70th Prime Minister Tuesday (Sept. 26). At 52, he is that country’s youngest postwar premier and the first born after World War II. And that, according to East-West Center fellow Sheila Smith “was one of his main selling points.”

But, as Smith notes, “Abe may be young by Japanese standards, but he is no political neophyte. His political pedigree is very solid.” Abe’s father, Shintaro, was a former foreign minister in the government of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s, and his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, was Japan’s Prime Minister from February 1957 to July 1960. Abe, himself, served his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi in various positions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and government over the past five years.

The new Prime Minister has been labeled by some as a nationalist. Smith says she can understand why, but she prefers to call him a Japanese conservative. “Abe feels fairly strongly that the time has come for Japan to speak its mind internationally … to move away from what many people think of as Japan’s postwar ideology.” She adds that “he startled many people abroad by saying that he thinks the outcome of the Tokyo war crime tribunals is something he does not agree with.”

But, according to Smith, “Abe, as Prime Minister and head of the LDP, will be focusing inward for awhile with an eye toward next summer’s Upper House elections. That will be a critical election because the LDP will be trying to win a two-thirds majority in the Upper House.” Smith points out “if they can do that, it will allow the party and Abe to move forward on Constitutional revision, including rewriting Article 9 to allow Japan broader latitude in deciding how to use its military.”

He has suggested, according to Smith, “one of his domestic priorities would be the passage of a new education law … reforms that have long been part of Japan’s conservative agenda … reforms that address the perceived need to instill patriotism in Japan’s youth, and to give them a sense of morality.”

As Smith puts it, “In effect, Abe is stepping in to lead a new LDP, one that was fundamentally shaken up by Koizumi.” And, he apparently has moved quickly to put his stamp on the party. “Abe has appointed individuals with ideas very similar to his own to the three key leadership positions within the LDP.”

Many observers believe Abe will follow Koizumi’s reform agenda, but Smith notes “he will clarify his own approach.” Like his predecessor, Abe has continued to emphasize the need to bring new and younger voices to Japan’s leadership. Smith points out, “in his cabinet, 11 of the new members are novices and eight are below the age of 60.” But, he also emphasized consensus building in the selection of the new cabinet. A Japanese trait, the self-styled maverick, Koizumi did not stress.

There are plenty of foreign policy issues that Abe will have to deal with early on, but Smith emphasizes, “It will be next year’s Upper House elections that will be upper-most in his mind. If he can lead the LDP to a major victory he will have not only secured his base, but also taken a big step toward advancing his conservative agenda.”


Sheila Smith is a research fellow in Politics, Governance, and Security in the East-West Center Research Program. Smith’s academic affiliations include associate in research of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. She has conducted extensive field work in Tokyo at the University of Tokyo and in Okinawa at the University of the Ryukyus, and has had research fellowships at the Japan Institute for International Affairs and the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Smith earned a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. Dr. Smith may be reached at (808) 944-7427 or via email at SmithS@EastWestCenter.org

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