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Nikkei Editorial

Abe needs to live up to his status as longest-serving prime minister

Japanese leader's achievements should not be overshadowed by lack of reform

Abe answers questions from reporters about the annual cherry blossom viewing party on Nov. 18. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

Shinzo Abe has become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in the constitutional era. As corporate earnings and the labor market have improved, he has built an administration marked by stability. Abe has also succeeded in raising Japan's prominence in the international community.

On the other hand, efforts to boost Japan's growth potential have stalled, along with measures to usher in fiscal soundness. Abe should show his leadership in realizing reforms and remedying these long-standing issues.

Including his first term, which ended in 2007 after a year, Abe's tenure reached 2,887 days on Nov. 20. That put him ahead of Taro Katsura, who served multiple times as prime minister in the early 1900s.

After Abe regained control of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, he emerged victorious in six national elections, including the December 2012 race that put him back in the prime minister's seat. Abe's third consecutive term in office is set to end in September 2021.

Under the banner of bold monetary easing, Abe's economic policies brought about an economic recovery fueled by a strong stock market and a depreciated yen. Abe's government twice raised the consumption tax, bringing it to the current 10% rate. The process, however, took longer than agreed upon under the schedule set by the LDP, junior coalition partner Komeito, and the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan.

Abenomics led to an increase in corporate earnings and a recovery in tax revenue. But the push to implement growth strategies, such as improving productivity or reforming regulations, is only halfway to completion. Although Japan's population is graying rapidly, the government lacks the resolve to make radical reforms to the social insurance system, which are necessary to alleviate concerns about the future.

Abe has stressed that there is no need to raise the consumption tax again within the next decade or so. But if he is going to silence critics wondering who will shoulder the fiscal burden of caring for the older generation, then expenditures on health care, nursing and other public benefits will inevitably need to be curbed.

If Abe's government fails to hold an honest debate that confronts the serious fiscal challenges directly, it would run counter to his pledge to reform the social security system in a way that reassures all generations.

On the diplomatic front, Abe helped craft the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact after the U.S. withdrew from the original deal. Japan's economic partnership agreement with the European Union was forged under his watch as well. It is of no small significance that Abe projected a stance focused on free and fair trade rules amid growing protectionism seen elsewhere around the globe.

Stable Japan-U.S. relations form the basis of Japan's diplomacy and national security. Abe has built up connections with international leaders, starting with U.S. President Donald Trump. The prime minister's duty is also to persistently pursue negotiations with countries like China, Russia and North Korea to resolve lingering concerns with each nation. Furthermore, it is imperative for Abe to find a pathway toward mending bilateral ties with South Korea.

Lately, Abe's cabinet has repeatedly shown signs of the conceit and laxness characteristic of long-standing administrations. In October, two cabinet members stepped down amid allegations related to political funding. Abe himself is currently under fire for inviting an increasing number of supporters to the annual cherry blossom viewing party, which is funded by public money.

For Abe to realize his policy agenda, and to make a convincing argument to amend Japan's pacifist constitution, the trust of the citizens is fundamental. Abe is fond of using the proverb "it takes three years to build a castle, but one day to destroy it." It is best if he takes that lesson to heart.

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