TOKYO -- As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters his seventh year in office, he is zeroing in on revising the postwar constitution and resolving a territorial dispute with Russia as a way to leave an enduring legacy.
Abe's current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021. He will become Japan's longest-serving postwar prime minister next year, counting his first stint in office, and surpass his great-uncle Eisaku Sato for the longest continuous term in August 2020, after the Tokyo Summer Olympics. By the time he leaves office, he will have earned the title of Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
Close advisers like Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso have repeatedly warned Abe not to fall into the trap that tends to hamstring leaders on their way out, like Sato. He won his fourth term as the LDP leader after negotiating the return of U.S.-controlled Okinawa to Japan. But he quickly became a lame duck and lost the party battle to install his chosen successor.
To avoid such a fate, he must keep his plate full with robust policy goals, Aso tells Abe.
On Dec. 20, Abe read newspaper reports on declassified diplomatic documents revealing that his grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, had promised the U.S. that he would enact a law that would criminalize leaking classified information. "He was trying to do the same thing," said Abe, who succeeded in enacting the controversial law in 2013.
Now, Abe is trying to perform another feat that eluded his grandfather: constitutional reform.
"There is no one besides me who can embody conservative thought," the prime minister has said to those around him, signaling his desire for revising the pacifist charter.
Abe also sees resolving a dispute with over the southern Kuril Islands, which are administered by Russia and claimed by Japan as the Northern Territories. If there is a breakthrough, Abe will be remembered for that for generations to come.
"Russia will dominate 2019," Abe often tells his close associates. He appears increasingly confident of progress with President Vladimir Putin.
Constitutional reform has helped Abe retain clout within the LDP, but a strong economy is what has sustained his popularity with the public. "The economy comes first," Abe tells those around him, sharing his assessment that U.S. President Donald Trump has maintained as much support as he has thanks to a sound American economy.
But the global economy, starting with the U.S., is showing signs of change. Clouds are also starting to form over Abenomics, which has relied heavily on an easy-money policy to keep the economy going. This year, the Bank of Japan's annual exchange-traded fund purchases hit 6 trillion yen ($54.3 billion) for the first time. It will be even harder to wean Japan's economy off the BOJ's monetary easing should uncertainty in global markets grow.
Abe has cited the job openings to applications ratio, which exceeded 1 in all 47 prefectures for the first time, as proof of Abenomics' success. But in a press conference after the last extraordinary Diet session, he also admitted that his economic policies are losing balance, saying that "regional areas are facing a severe labor shortage."
"I would like to see all-out measures to support the economy ahead of the consumption tax hike" in October 2019, Abe instructed his deputies. His government has decided on a spending package of about 2.3 trillion yen to soften the blow, but a strategy beyond that has yet to emerge.
Japan's longest-serving prime ministers have each left a mark that is synonymous with their names -- the return of Okinawa under Sato, the privatization of the Japanese National Railways under Yasuhiro Nakasone and the privatization of Japan Post under Junichiro Koizumi. Those leaders also maintained their grip on power by pitting potential successors against each other.
But the end of Sato's government was marred by a bitter rivalry between Kakuei Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda over the prime minister post. To avoid the same fate, Abe must continue to fight for his legacy until his term is finished while giving room for aspiring successors to compete. This will allow him to retain influence after he leaves. To do so, however, the prime minister must ensure the economy remains stable as long as he is in office.