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Opinion

Abe's woeful record of policy drift

Japan can ill afford another three years of inaction on its huge challenges

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must deliver on urgent policy matters.   © Reuters

For a leader commanding a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's legislative accomplishments in nearly six years in office are remarkably modest. His showmanship has boosted confidence in a nation reeling from the lost decades of economic stagnation and the 2011 natural and nuclear disasters, and he has transformed Japan's security policy while concentrating executive powers in the Prime Minister's Office.

Yet less than one third of voters support Abe's signature policies, ranging from collective self-defense, arms exports, state secrets legislation and a conspiracy law to nuclear reactor restarts, constitutional revision, legalized gambling and building a new base for U.S. Marines in Okinawa. Broadcaster NHK's monthly polls over the past few years find that support for Abe's policies and leadership is quite low at about 15%, while the main reason voters give for supporting him is the lack of a viable alternative (about 50%), a lukewarm endorsement for a leader on track to become Japan's longest serving prime minister.

Even so, Abe keeps winning elections and that is what counts in politics. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party benefits from an electoral system that disproportionately represents its loyal rural constituencies. Voter apathy also helps, as almost half of Japanese do not vote. The LDP typically wins half of those who do, translating into a modest mandate of about 25% of the total eligible electorate. Above all, Abe has benefited from the weakness of his party rivals and the fracturing of the opposition camp, enabling him to overcome deep public distrust. The vast majority does not believe his explanations about two scandals involving cronies that have dogged his administration since 2017. They have also lost faith due to several instances of tampering and mishandling of official documents that fall short of public expectations for transparency, accountability and good governance.

Problematically, Abe has not used his unrivaled power to address urgent problems. This policy drift translates into very little progress on Japan's staggering demographic challenges, global warming, rural revitalization and gender bias in the workplace.

Abe's Holy Grail is constitutional revision, but this is complicated by a decidedly unenthusiastic public. Even Shigeru Ishiba, his hawkish rival in the LDP leadership battle, cautions against moving ahead on revision because there is so little support for it. The worry is that in his third term, Abe will focus on tinkering with the constitution instead of the economic reforms and family-friendly policies necessary to revitalize the economy.

Abenomics was rolled out with great fanfare in 2012 like a product launch and proved immensely successful in generating a buzz about Japan. For ordinary Japanese, however, it looks like welfare for the wealthy, cutting corporate taxes and pumping up the stock market while neglecting the needs of families, youth, women, non-regular workers and retirees. An October 2017 Pew Research Center poll indicates that two-thirds of Japanese in their working prime (aged 30-49), believe economic conditions are bad and only 19% believe their children will enjoy better financial prospects.

So the headlines trumpeting growth and the end of a prolonged recession mask the grim realities of a relatively high number of children (3.5 million) raised in relative poverty and more than 10 million working poor in the "precariat" of non-regular workers that account for 38% of the workforce.

Japan's poverty rate is 16.3% and has risen while the U.S.'s has declined to 17.3%. According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Inclusive Development Report, Japan is a laggard on distributing the fruits of growth, ranking 24th out of 29 advanced economies and is also one of the worst in the developed world (25th) on intergenerational equality. Abe has not delivered for families and single mothers have had their benefits cut.

Domestic consumption, the engine of growth in a healthy economy, has sputtered because wages have remained stagnant and taxes have increased. And the third arrow of structural reforms has been disappointing because Abe has not delivered anything significant. The relatively low level of foreign direct investment into Japan is another sign of Abenomics sputtering. In 2017 Japan attracted $10.4 billion, a trifle compared with the $275 billion invested in the U.S. and $50 billion in France and even lower than South Korea's $17 billion.

Abe grandstands on "womenomics" as the key to economic revival, and often talks about empowering women, but has not delivered here either. Women remain concentrated in non-regular jobs where wages are low, and it is stunning that there are no women managers at 73% of Japanese companies and only 3.7% of executives are women at listed companies. The old boys' club remains entrenched in the boardroom and gender diversity remains unrealized. Abe came into office boldly proclaiming a target of 30% female managers by 2020 but subsequently halved that target in the private sector and slashed it to just 7% in the public sector. He passed a gender equality law in 2015 requiring companies to set targets for promoting women into top management, but there are no penalties for noncompliance.

In politics, as of 2018 only 47 of 465 Diet members are women, a lower proportion than in Saudi Arabia, while there are just two female ministers in his 2018 cabinet. In the gender equality rankings compiled by the World Economic Forum, Japan dropped from 101st in 2012 when Abe came to power to 114th in 2017, the lowest ranking in the Group of Seven. He has also made little progress on improving Japan's weak social infrastructure supporting families, meaning that too many women must choose between a career or raising children.

Abe has increased limited duration migrant labor to ease labor shortages, but the regulations are designed to prevent such workers qualifying for permanent residency. In recent years, there has been a vast expansion in the number of technical trainees, but the government acknowledges that most are subject to abuses and has not done much to protect them from labor rights violations. The new side door for unskilled labor is for a maximum of 10 years, but this human capital will also be squandered because of the government's "Kleenex" approach to migrant labor -- use and toss.

Perhaps the greatest global threat to human security is climate change, but on Abe's watch Japan has confined itself to modest targets for cutting carbon emissions. In 2018, Foreign Minister Taro Kono slammed the government's energy policy for being out of touch with global trends toward decarbonization. One reason is that Abe's Japan is exporting coal-fired power plants to developing nations and is the leading financier for such projects.

Japan can ill afford three more years of policy drift on this and other urgent domestic issues.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. His latest book "Japan" will be published by Polity Press in November.

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