TOKYO -- Despite the relative calm of the Japanese political landscape, a storm may be brewing this spring for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government as the sales tax goes up next month and Abe pushes for broader defense rights.
"The consumption tax will rise in April, but we'll soften the snapback (in spending) with the 5.5 trillion yen ($52.8 billion) stimulus package," Abe told the upper house budget committee Tuesday. He stressed that every effort would be made to keep the recovery from stalling out.
Hoping to avoid Hashimoto's mistakes
The prime minister is trying not to repeat the errors of a predecessor, Ryutaro Hashimoto, who presided over the sales tax hike to 5% from 3% in 1997. The resulting blow to the economy led to the collapse of Hashimoto's government the following year.
The success of Abenomics has strengthened the government's position -- but this fact would make a slump all the more problematic.
Abe's strategy is to ensure that the public understands the necessity of the tax hike. He particularly wants to stress that the additional revenue will not be wasted but used solely to fund social security programs.
"I want to explain it to the country one more time," says Abe, who plans to hold a news conference in late March after the budget passes.
Aside from the economic dangers awaiting in April, the prime minister faces even tougher hurdles as he wades into the controversial arena of national security, or more specifically the nation's right to aid allies under attack.
Previous governments have held that Japan has this right under international law but that the constitution does not permit the country to exercise it. Abe wants to abandon this convoluted explanation and declare that the charter allows the Self-Defense Forces to use this right.
New Komeito, the coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, has declined to back the plan. Abe spoke with New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on Feb. 25 and won his consent to begin discussions.
Once the coalition gives the green light, Abe aims to adopt a formal government stance via a cabinet decision by summer, but the two parties remain wide apart.
Some upper house LDP members are also growing cautious. On Feb. 28, Abe treated senior lawmakers of the party to dinner and sounded them out on collective self-defense.
"We should first make sure that Japan exits from 20 years of deflation," said Hiromi Yoshida, acting secretary-general for the LDP upper house caucus, urging Abe to remain focused on the economy.
The LDP's upper house caucus has many members elected through proportional representation with the backing of trade groups. Their political interests are thus not aligned with those of Abe, who has clashed with industry-linked lawmakers.
Abe has enjoyed unrivaled power within the LDP, but this also means nobody will stand up to him when he goes too far in pushing his agenda. The real threat to Abe thus may not be the opposition, but resistance from New Komeito and disgruntled members of his own party.
U.S. President Barack Obama's April 22-23 visit to Japan will be a major test for Abe, whose controversial outing to a war-linked Tokyo shrine has eroded bilateral relations. The two nations have yet to strike a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. With a runoff election in Kagoshima scheduled for April 27, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga cautions against complacency within the party.
The blind spot in all this may be Abe himself. While he has tried to show humility and suppress his short temper, he has snapped at questioners recently -- and more than a few lawmakers close to him worry that he is getting tense.
On Sunday afternoon, the prime minister spent an hour in "zazen" meditation at the Zenshoan temple in Tokyo's Yanaka district. Zenshoan is a calming place for Abe, far from the bustle of Nagatacho, Tokyo's political nerve center.
He emerged relaxed and refreshed, but a lapse into arrogance could have consequences for his government.