Feature

Japan: Does an economic plan mask a nationalist push?

Now that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ended Japan's legislative gridlock, he can push through his ambitious economic reform program.

“Abenomics” won at the polls this week, said the Nikkei Shimbun(Japan) in an editorial. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally done what none of the past five prime ministers could do: end the legislative gridlock that has for so long crippled Japanese politics. With his coalition’s resounding victory in the upper house this week, he now has control of both houses and can push through his ambitious economic reform program. The voters gave him this victory on the strength of the progress the economy has made since Abe won the lower house in December and implemented the first two “arrows” of Abenomics: massive fiscal stimulus through government spending, and massive monetary stimulus through the Bank of Japan. Japan is finally seeing growth in its gross domestic product and a welcome boost to the stock market after years of contraction and torpor. Now Abe must “focus all of his political capital” on the third arrow: structural reform. “We hope this election will become a turning point for Japan to shed two decades of stagnation and decay.”

So far, Abenomics is no miracle cure, said the Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan). GDP is up, but “Abenomics has not yet produced any conspicuous improvements in the income of ordinary citizens or employment.” It all turns on the next step, said Nicholas Spiro in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). Abe’s plan calls for raising the consumption tax three points, to 8 percent. It’s a risky step for a government that is trying to stimulate growth—the last such tax increase helped spur a recession and toppled a prime minister—but it is crucial to reducing Japan’s “staggering public debt burden.” Labor reform and market deregulation are also on the agenda, and to achieve all this, Abe will have to “face down the powerful interest groups within his own party that have long stymied structural change in Japan.”

As long as Abe sticks to economics, he’ll have the people behind him, said the Asahi Shimbun (Japan). His party’s campaign speeches were almost entirely focused on the economy, and that’s what galvanized voters. But the victory does not imply “carte blanche in charting the course of the nation.” Voter turnout was barely over 50 percent, the lowest it’s been in years. Most Japanese do not share Abe’s zeal for rewriting the pacifist constitution or restarting idle nuclear reactors, to say nothing of his nationalist foreign policy agenda.

Abe has already offended China with his “rightist swagger,” said Yang Qingchuan in XinhuaNet.com (China). Just days before the vote, he reasserted a false claim to the Diaoyu Islands, “over which China possesses undisputable sovereign rights,” calling them Japanese territory and vowing never to give them up. And earlier this month he “provoked Japan’s neighbors by trying to glorify the country’s militarist past.” Is the professed emphasis on economics just a front for his real plan to militarize Japan? We’ll soon know, said the JoongAng Daily (South Korea). Next month is the anniversary of the end of World War II. Will Abe visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals are honored? “Neighboring countries, including South Korea, will watch closely.”

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