Tokyo Assembly Victory Boost for Japan’s Prime Minister

Shinzō Abe received a vote of confidence on Sunday when his party came out the big victor in local assembly elections in Tokyo. The victory could bode well for his Liberal Democratic Party’s chances in key national elections for the upper house of parliament next month.

Sunday’s election to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly is viewed as an endorsement for Abe and his reform plan. His party gained twenty seats after the vote. In alliance with the conservative New Komeito, it now holds a comfortable majority. Both parties had all of their candidates elected.

The outcome is especially important in light of Abe’s legislative goals and the Liberal Democrats’ control of the lower house of parliament. If the party takes control of the upper house, the prime minister will be given a freer hand to pass structural economic reforms he believes are necessary to spur economic growth. He has also said he wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the military to participate in more overseas missions. Read more “Tokyo Assembly Victory Boost for Japan’s Prime Minister”

Japan’s Abe Takes Risk by Delaying Reforms Ahead of Election

Since Shinzō Abe was an archery player in college, it is apt that his plan for turning the Japanese economy around is described as encompassing three arrows. Last December, when it became clear that the Liberal Democratic Party would emerge victorious in lower house elections and return Abe as prime minister, “Abenomics” sparked confidence in a public hungering for reforms.

Indeed by spring, there was growing belief that the economic reforms might just beat deflation and lift Japan out of its doldrums. The Nikkei 225 stock average had climbed some 80 percent by May from its November lows and the yen‘s value had greatly depreciated, encouraging exporters. In addition, there was evidence that inflation was starting to creep back into the economy.

But after five months in office, the market began to get nervous about the lack of details in a key part of Abe’s plans: the restructuring of the economy, the “third arrow.” This nervousness soon translated into volatility in the Japanese market, creating further uncertainty. The third arrow would always be the hardest to push through because it encroaches upon Japan’s vested interests. Read more “Japan’s Abe Takes Risk by Delaying Reforms Ahead of Election”

Japan’s Abe Seeks Energy, Trade in Russia, Middle East

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan, accompanied by more than one hundred business executives, is in the middle of a four nation trip intended to secure much needed energy resources and to bolster trade. His itinerary underlines the quandary Japan faces as it grapples with finding alternative energy sources while its nuclear plants remain idle since the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster.

Abe’s first stop was Russia. The two countries acknowledged in a joint statement that relations remained “abnormal” in the face of an unsigned bilateral peace treaty officially ending World War II. Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin instructed their foreign ministries to revisit the issue and also find ways to improve Japanese-Russian relations in general.

The major impediment preventing a treaty from being signed has been the status of the four islands situated north of Japan’s Hokkaido and south of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula that the Soviet Union took in 1945 during the final days of the war. Japan refers to these islands as its Northern Territories while they are known in Russia as the Southern Kurils. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and believed to posses oil and natural gas deposits offshore.

The issue was left unresolved in the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration which restored relations. At the time, Japan rejected an offer to return two of the four southernmost islands closest to it as inadequate by the Soviets. Read more “Japan’s Abe Seeks Energy, Trade in Russia, Middle East”

Japan Prepares to Thwart North Korean Missile Strike

With American and South Korean intelligence predicting a missile launch by North Korea in the coming days, Japan announced a series of measures to protect its territory and calm nerves among its population. This comes as South Korea raised its military watch alert level to “vital threat” and its president vowed to respond to any provocations.

As the stream of bellicose statements from North Korea continued and reports indicated that it has prepared missiles on its east coast ready for launch, Japan’s defense minister Itsunori Onodera on Sunday directed the island nation’s military to be ready to shoot down a North Korean rocket should it threaten Japan. The navy sent anti-missile ships to the Sea of Japan and Patriot batteries were deployed in and around the capital Tokyo as well as elsewhere in the country. Read more “Japan Prepares to Thwart North Korean Missile Strike”

Abe Challenges Domestic Interests, Enters Trade Talks

Fear of falling behind has a funny way of focusing the mind sometimes. Policy choices once seen as toxic become increasingly palatable to leaders when they are considered against national security. So it goes for Japan as it seeks to maintain its position in Asia and finally kickstart its perennially stalled economy in the face of a rapidly growing China.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced on Friday that Japan will be joining talks to become part of a new free-trade area in the Pacific led by the United States. If Japan succeeds in joining the trade pact, it would be nothing short of a sea change for the Asian country’s domestic policy because it will need to structurally reform its economy and open its market to foreign competitors. Read more “Abe Challenges Domestic Interests, Enters Trade Talks”

In Washington, Japan’s Abe Reaffirms American Alliance

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe met with President Barack Obama in Washington on Friday for the first time since his Liberal Democratic Party won the election in December.

Abe arrived in the United States with strong domestic support. Some polls put his cabinet’s approval rating as high as 70 percent. This largely stems from budding enthusiasm for his economic policies and his commitment to protect Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands which China lays claim to.

At the top of the summit agenda, according to Japanese officials, were North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program as well as the situation in East Asia, i.e., Japan’s island dispute with China. Read more “In Washington, Japan’s Abe Reaffirms American Alliance”

No Good Way Out China-Japan Island Dispute

Since the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands dispute between China and Japan reemerged last year, there’s been a tendency to identify the United States as the main beneficiary of it. The thinking is as follows: the dispute strengthens the alliance between Japan and the United States at the expense of the Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship, worsens China’s external security outlook and provides an excuse for the deployment of American armed forces to East Asia which help encircle China. As a result, China’s economic development is hampered and the stability of Communist Party rule may be threatened.

However, if the Sino-American relationship is studied at large, the impact of the islands dispute put in a global perspective and the rise of Japan’s nationalist right taken into account, the odds may not be in the United States’ favor at all. Read more “No Good Way Out China-Japan Island Dispute”

New Japanese Government Deepens Burma Engagement

After his Liberal Democrats won last month’s parliamentary elections, Japan’s Shinzō Abe stated that turning the economy around would be his top priority as prime minister. It is therefore not surprising that the first trip abroad by officials in his new government would be to Burma, a country considered the next frontier for foreign investment since it has adopted political and economic reforms after being virtually isolated from the world while living under decades of military rule.

Japan’s finance minister Tarō Asō arrived in Burma’s relocated capital of Naypyidaw last Thursday for meetings with Burmese president Thein Sein and announced a series of moves that amounted to Japan boosting its economic ties with Burma. Asō reaffirmed Japan’s intention of forgiving ¥300 billion ($3.4 billion) of the ¥500 billion owed by Burma that was first announced last April.

Japan will now extend a new loan to the South Asian country of ¥50 billion, the first in decades, intended for infrastructure projects and the development of Burma’s Thilawa economic zone near Yangon. The Abe government will also work with the Burmese authorities and Japanese banks to refinance the balance of the country’s outstanding debt. This will clear the way for Burma to apply for more loans and international aid. Read more “New Japanese Government Deepens Burma Engagement”

Japan’s Abe Proposes Foreign, Monetary Policy Changes

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe answers questions from reporters in Tokyo, September 26
Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe answers questions from reporters in Tokyo, September 26 (Xinhua)

Japan’s conservative party won in convincing fashion on Sunday in parliamentary elections for the lower house, according exit polls. The elections took place against the backdrop of increasing tensions with China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, a stagnating economy unable to reinvigorate growth and a rancorous debate over the reliance on nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

The Liberal Democratic Party won between 275 and three hundred seats of the 480 seat lower chamber, according to preliminary polls conducted by the national public broadcaster NHK. If the results stand, it will prove to be a big increase from the 118 seats the party held before the elections. Along with the 27 to 35 seats expected to be won by their allies in the New Kōmeitō Party, the Liberal Democrats will have gained the two-thirds majority needed to override bills passed in the divided upper house.

The Liberal Democratic win means that former prime minister and right leaning Shinzō Abe is expected to get a second stint as premier. He would be the country’s eighth in the last seven years.

Until its surprise defeat in 2009, the Liberal Democratic Party was the dominant force in Japanese politics, having been in power for over fifty years.

The incumbent Democratic Party of Japan coalition is expected to win only 67 seats, down sharply from the three hundred odd seats it won in 2009 when it was swept into power in a landslide. Back then, a new era was said to be at hand in Japanese politics.

The results are a stinging rebuke to the ruling party and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government. Voters were upset with the party that doubled the consumption tax and failed to follow up on various campaign pledges from reforming government expenditures to relocating 8,000 United States Marines from the military base on Okinawa to Guam.

Abe is expected to push for a change in Japan’s pacifist constitution which forbids it from waging war. A big adjustment in Japan’s military posture is not seen as imminent, however, as the Japanese public has on previous occasions rejected radical changes to the Constitution that would have seen the military rearming. A more likely scenario, analysts say, would be for Abe to push for a closer alliance with the United States in the case of hostilities in East Asia.

Abe has talked of more public spending and called for a more activist policy from the Bank of Japan to simulate growth. His proposed monetary policy could result in a change to the traditional independence enjoyed by the central bank. Specifically, Abe would like to adjust the inflation target from 1 to 2 percent and increase the central bank’s interventions in the currency market to weaken the yen and stimulate exports.

The Bank of Japan has taken steps like increasing its asset purchases in recent months to reverse the deflation that has afflicted the Japanese economy since the early 1990s but its domestic critics, frustrated with the nation’s economic malaise, complain that it has not done enough.

Abe and the incoming Liberal Democrats have also talked about adopting a tougher tone with China as relations have grown rockier in the last year over disputed claims to sovereignty over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

China has gradually upped the ante by increasing the incursions by its maritime surveillance ships which many believe it is using to change the status quo of Japanese control over the islands. Recently, Japan scrambled fighter jets after a Chinese aircraft was detected entering Japanese airspace over the islands, widely seen as an escalation and the first time that aircraft were employed in the dispute. With Japanese business hurting on the Chinese mainland from anti-Japan protests, Abe will need to balance his tough talk with the need to maintain economic relations with China.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats are expected to embrace nuclear power more than the Democrats did to meet Japan’s domestic energy needs.

After the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima last year, the Democrats said that they would phase out nuclear power sometime in the 2030s. Abe has called that plan unrealistic. There remains deep ambivalence in Japanese society over nuclear power following Fukushima with many voters wanting Abe to adopt a policy like before the crisis and others in favor of what they see as safer sources of domestic power production.

Turning the economy around will be the new government’s top priority, in addition to strengthening the American alliance. Abe says he wants to improve relations with China too but it seems that the islands dispute will need to be resolved in order for that to happen.

Final election results are expected on Monday.

As Economy Slows, Japan’s Noda Backs Free Trade Deals

Economic data released on Monday has raised fears of Japan falling into recession again. It would be the Asian country’s third since 2008.

Prior to the release, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that he planned to pursue passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade pact between American and Asian nations, as well as a free-trade agreement with neighboring China and South Korea.

Noda’s support of these trade deals is speculated to be a last-ditch effort to lift the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s sagging public approval ratings before calling lower house elections in December. He would then be able to follow through on his pledge to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party of calling elections “soon” as well as hope to generate some enthusiasm from the public. Read more “As Economy Slows, Japan’s Noda Backs Free Trade Deals”