With the year not yet halfway over, 2016 has already become an annus horribilis for the West. Terrorists commandeer the most mundane implements of daily life to wreak havoc, while elsewhere the institutions binding the West, and indeed the very national fabrics of some Western states themselves, exacerbated by a raging populist fervor, are slowly coming undone.
In this atmosphere of chaos, Japan stands curiously alone. Though Western media has for years described the Japanese economy as stagnant and riven with structural issues, Japan has not come under the sway of the populist wave gripping the West. Indeed, last week’s House of Councillors election saw Japanese voters decisively hand the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its allies a vote of confidence. While the American economy has become divided between haves and have-nots, the Japanese economy is relatively equal. In contrast to the European countries, Japan’s ethnic homogeneity and resistance to mass immigration ensures that broad-based concerns over assimilation are far away from the Japanese consciousness. And unlike both, there is no Trump, Le Pen, or Wilders-like figure preaching blood-and-soil conservatism. As AEI’s Michael Auslin illustrates, Japan has arrived at this point in part because it has rejected many of the institutions and ideas sacrosanct to the Western project, like multiculturalism, large-scale immigration, and unbridled capitalism.
Yet, in spite of these exceptions, Japan’s system of government, its embrace of liberal values, and foreign relations all place it firmly in the Western camp. And with many of its partners riven by internal disagreement and navel-gazing, the Abe government has been handed a unique opportunity, one the prime minister been clamoring for since he first entered the Diet: the chance to take an international political role commensurate with Japan’s economic power. But doing so is not merely so simple as making a speech or launching mere window-dressing changes. Abe and his allies should use their newfound double two-thirds majority to resolutely address the major issues facing Japan: structural impediments to growth, the crushing demographic decline, and the continued “normalization” of Japan’s security bureaucracy and the laws governing it. The start of negotiations on constitutional revision by the LDP and its allies should only be the first step. For Japan to truly achieve leadership, it must demonstrate to its own people and to the world that the values under siege by populism at home and aggression abroad, like free trade and the rule of law, are precisely what makes the West strong and prosperous.
The award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines represents an opportunity for Japan to undertake this very sort of leadership on the international stage. Japan should participate in U.S. freedom of navigation operations to help clear the way for greater multilateral coordination among U.S.-allied nations in Asia. As the richest and most powerful “spoke” in the hub-and-spoke American alliance structure in Asia, Japanese moral and strategic leadership on enforcement of the South China Sea decision will play a critical role in determining the extent to which the PCA decision is upheld by the regional community. Indeed, it will demonstrate to the United States, one of whose leading presidential contenders has publicly questioned the value of the alliance, that the relationship has truly moved into the equal partnership envisioned in the 2015 alliance guideline revision. As the East China Sea row heats up further, a strong stance on the rule of law and implementation of the PCA award is not simply an abstract question of theory or jurisprudence, but an issue of grave importance to the continued security of Japan and the ideals for which the West stands for.
But while security issues may be Abe’s pet project, they were far from the minds of voters in the recent House of Councillors election. This is precisely why the LDP and its allies must offer a compelling vision for the future of the nation with internationalist values at the core. Abenomics, largely an exercise in rebranding many been there, done that LDP fiscal stimulus measures, has allowed Japan, inc. to go on a widespread spending spree—a lone bright spot—but has exacerbated inequality and not yet managed to boost inflation to the critical two percent mark. Muddling along, or otherwise relying on questionable monetary policy to distract from a true vision of reform, will only further entrench a nothing-to-be-done mentality regarding problems like low inflation or the demographic crisis. Structural reform, a doubtlessly painful and politically unpopular series of programs to reform Japan’s labor, trade, and corporate governance laws, must take place. Hearteningly, Abe’s leadership on free trade and willingness to confront entrenched Japanese interest groups means that Japan will serve as a standard bearer both among Western nations and the world at large when it comes to upholding liberalism. Caught between a rock and a hard place in deciding how firmly to press constitutional revision, Abe, who spent the recent election campaigning purely on economic rather than constitutional issues, should take the lead on neoliberal reform and trade agreements while the Diet debates revision.
To be sure, none of this will be easy or simple. Already, the demographic crisis has begun to squeeze Japan’s labor force, and China’s continued flirtation with declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea means that Japan faces grave threats not just to its geopolitical interests, but the very demographic makeup of the country itself. And yet, with its allies mired in election-year anxieties over the continued value of global liberalism, Japan is uniquely situated to speak on behalf of internationalism. Even longtime exceptions to Japan’s embrace of Western liberal values, like refusal to consider widespread immigration, have begun to show cracks. With the government and its allies receiving an unprecedented declaration of public support, the time is now for Abe to accelerate the political, economic, and constitutional reforms necessary to ensure Japan’s continued embrace of liberalism. By placing these reforms at the center of their vision for Japan’s future, Abe, the LDP and Komeito will ensure that the Japan of tomorrow is one with an assuredly internationalist outlook — proving to its allies that burn-it-down populism will make the West weaker, and to its adversaries that liberalism will not fecklessly kowtow to aggression.
Ben Rimland is an MPhil student in modern Japanese studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, where he researches maritime security and East Asia defense issues. He tweets at @brim1and