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Shinzo Abe Loses His Grip on the Hard Right

SNA (Tokyo) — As anyone who studies Japanese political history of the 1930s can attest, the rightwing forces in this nation can be a fractious lot. Once the spirit of nationalism rages, any sort of moderate, compromising behavior can be denounced as treason. Shinzo Abe came to power as a spokesman for the hard right, but after ten months of reasonably cautious behavior, a good chunk of this movement is ready to turn against him.

There are two major disappointments that have put the grassroots conservatives on the verge of disowning Shinzo Abe. First, something that will come as little surprise, they are angry that this prime minister won’t “walk the walk” and visit Yasukuni Shrine. Second, they are dissatisfied with Abe’s championing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), deregulation, and what might be called the Western neoliberal economic model more generally.

There is little doubt that Shinzo Abe’s first ten months in office have included some surprises. He has been more cautious about advancing his conservative ideology than almost anybody would have predicted at the outset. By putting his initial focus on Abenomics and the revitalization of the Japanese economy, Abe has been a surprising political success with the mainstream Japanese voter. He still maintains public approval ratings over 55% in most polls.

It is probably the influence of the Obama administration in Washington that has been the most effective check preventing Prime Minister Abe from taking a harder diplomatic line with Korea and China. Certainly, the desire to win the House of Councillors elections this past July was a key factor in disciplining Abe and the LDP for the first half of the year, but now that the ruling party has its majorities in hand, it is mainly the Americans, and to a lesser extent the alliance with New Komeito, who are pushing for the continuation of a moderate line. Abe is also enjoying his enduring popularity with the average citizen, which was something he lost quickly in his 2006-2007 term in office.

But one group which is certainly far from pleased with the “statesmanlike” Shinzo Abe are the people who worked the hardest to facilitate his political comeback. His friends on the nationalist right are taking a second look at Abe, and they are beginning to see him as the same kind of weak-kneed postwar politician that they wanted to be rid of.

One measure of this change can be seen on Facebook and other internet pages where the “net uyoku” tends to swarm. Our brief survey of the comments found there included many messages that confirm growing disenchantment with Prime Minister Abe among the grassroots conservatives:

–“I cannot trust you if you don’t visit Yasukuni. All that about your ‘extreme regret’ is talk and nothing else.”

–“What are you afraid of? The people of our nation want you to visit Yasukuni as prime minister. By failing to do so, it’s only the Asahi Shinbun that you are making happy.”

–“Can’t you visit Yasukuni? You are losing your qualification as a leader, and you are unable to grasp the heart of the people.”

–“Mr. Abe has no guts, typical of the Japanese politicians of postwar days.”

Against this advice from his increasingly alienated supporters is the advice we presume that Prime Minister Abe is consistently but quietly receiving from agents of the US government.

Although the Japanese media studiously downplayed it, the joint visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery was, to those attuned to these matters, a striking warning for Abe to stay away from Yasukuni Shrine and not to cause unnecessary trouble in East Asian diplomacy.

There’s not really any doubt that Prime Minister Abe’s heart is with the rightwing activists who are now criticizing him and not with the changeable middle of Japanese politics, but with his own deep investment in TPP and other issues related to Washington, as well as the Tokyo Olympics, make it difficult for him to give the rightwing the kind of thumb-your-nose-at-the-world nationalist approach they are hungry for.

Some of Abe’s friends are even happy to start flanking him on the right. Two Cabinet ministers, Yoshitaka Shindo and Keiji Furuya, were among the 160 or so national lawmakers who visited Yasukuni Shrine last week.

And, rarely one to disappoint in this regard, Japan Restoration Party co-leader Shintaro Ishihara recently hit out at Abe from the right by declaring, “Although I had expectations for him on both the Senkaku issue and the Constitution issue, he has just toned it all down. His answers in the Diet are like those of a bureaucrat. There’s a limit to that.”

Prime Minister Abe clearly understands that he is beginning to lose his once firm grip on the political right. This explains why, in spite of his decision not to visit Yasukuni Shrine at this exact time, he vowed once again that the occasion for his visit as prime minister definitely will come, and indeed the latest word suggests this will be within the next couple of months, before the December 26 anniversary of his second government. He repeated that he feels “extreme regret” for not visiting the shrine during his first stint as prime minister.

The economic issues are less evocative, but they are also important. The Abe government’s pro-business policies may be going down well at Keidanren, but unlike conservatives in the United States and some European nations, the Japanese hard right is not wedded to free market economics and, in fact, often prefers state-led development and strong social safety nets. Talk of lowering corporate tax rates and entering TPP alienates much of the political right in Japan, just as it does the political left.

One could almost feel sorry for Shinzo Abe and his political predicament at this point. His once ardent supporters are pushing him in one direction, and his crucial overseas allies are pushing him in the opposite direction. The US diplomacy factor, the TPP factor, the Olympics factor, and his own desire for international accolades all demand that he continues to govern from the center and compromise on almost every issue. But for his own political base, that all has the whiff of national treason about it, and what they most want to see from him is a defiant rejection of compromise and sticking a finger in the eyes of both the Koreans and the Chinese. It seems highly unlikely that he will be able to reconcile any of the building contradictions, but can only zigzag between different approaches.

Yes, one could almost feel sorry for him; but, then again, it was Abe himself who chose to ride into power on the back of the nationalist tiger. Ultimately, he has no one but himself to blame when the tiger starts putting its claws into him.

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