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Shinzo Abe: Ideologue or Pragmatist?

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Tokyo Report

Shinzo Abe: Ideologue or Pragmatist?

Japan’s prime minister isn’t nationalistic so much as realistic.

Shinzo Abe: Ideologue or Pragmatist?
Credit: Prime Minister of Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is routinely described in much of the English-speaking media, on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, as “nationalist,” “ultraconservative,” or “revisionist,” with Abe’s foreign policy usually construed as a natural extension of his own political views. While Japan’s diplomacy under Abe’s first tenure in 2006-2007 was indeed underpinned by ideologically-driven initiatives, it is also true that he started showing pragmatist leanings from the very outset of his second premiership in 2012 and has gradually shelved ideology in favor of realpolitik based on Japan’s national interests. It is worth noting, however, that during both terms, Abe’s foreign policy approach was met with some pushback from the Foreign Ministry, though for very different reasons.

When analyzing the nature of Abe’s foreign policy, it is important to make a clear distinction between Abe as an individual and his actions as a prime minister. Abe himself, who hails from the neoconservative Machimura faction of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), likely holds nationalistic views as evidenced by his writing, most notably his 2006 bestseller Towards a Beautiful Country, in which he yearned for Japan to become a truly independent country unfettered by the shackles of Japan’s peaceful constitution.

During his second term, however, Abe has been increasingly pursuing a moderate, realist course in both foreign and national security policies, and there is hardly any evidence that this course, formulated by the bureaucracy and implemented by the Abe government, can be classified as nationalist or militarist. His staffing decisions also suggest that Abe 2.0 is no longer willing to continue the ideologically-charged agenda of his first premiership and is instead focused on conducting pragmatic diplomacy aimed at securing and furthering Japan’s economic interests.

Throughout his first, year-long term, Abe espoused so-called values-oriented diplomacy, which was based on the idea that Japan should first and foremost develop ties with like-minded states that share universal values such as democracy, rule of law, and human rights, and emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. This approach was operationalized through a strategy called the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, referring to budding democracies in the outer rim of Eurasia, from North Europe to East Asia, which Japan should assist and deepen ties with. The strategy was engineered by senior Foreign Ministry official Nobukatsu Kanehara and Abe’s adviser Shotaro Yachi, the latter’s influence being so great that he was considered a “shadow Foreign Minister” of sorts.

While the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity was officially used to describe Japan’s grand strategy under Abe, it was faced with opposition from the Foreign Ministry on account of the new doctrine excluding many countries that supposedly did not share Japan’s values, primarily China. Foreign Ministry officials insisted that Japan’s economic interests should take precedence over any ideological considerations, and therefore Beijing should remain on Japan’s diplomatic radar.

Such focus on ideology at the expense of tackling economic malaise was what arguably cost Abe his position as prime minister in 2007, as domestic issues have traditionally mattered more to the Japanese public than foreign affairs. Indeed, Abe’s approval rating fluctuation throughout his current term has largely coincided with the ebb and flow of Japan’s economic development. Abe seems to have learned the lessons of his first premiership well as he has shown a tilt toward more pragmatic policies right from the start of his second term in December 2012, which has earned him virtually unwavering support from the disparate factions within the LDP, as well as consistently solid public approval.

In practice, the new approach is perhaps best illustrated by the Russo-Japanese rapprochement carefully orchestrated by Abe over several years and characterized by Japan’s extremely conciliatory stance on the disputed territories and enhanced economic cooperation. Vis-à-vis China, Abe moved toward a “hedge but engage” approach involving shoring up domestic defense capabilities and tightening security ties with neighboring states, while also acknowledging the importance of warm relations with Beijing and especially the economic value of a potential free trade agreement with China.

His personnel policy also seems to point to Abe being able to listen to different opinions and work even with his opponents. Fumio Kishida, serving as foreign minister since 2012, is a liberal leading the moderate Kochikai faction of the LDP. The first two defense ministers, Itsunori Onodera and Gen Nakatani, were Abe’s political opponents during his 2012 LDP leadership bid and instead supported Shigeru Ishiba, Abe’s main adversary. Further, Abe’s appointment as executive secretary of Takaya Imai, who plays a big role in foreign policymaking, signifies Abe’s shift to a diplomacy based on economic interests, as Imai comes from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) rather than the Foreign or Defense Ministry.

While Abe brought back Yachi and appointed him as head of the newly-created National Security Council, the move did not result in a resurgence of values-oriented diplomacy from Abe’s first term. Despite Yachi leaning ideologically toward Abe, he held pragmatic views and recognized the value of friendly ties with China, being chosen by Abe in 2013 to secretly visit Beijing in an attempt to keep Sino-Japanese relations from deteriorating further. Yachi was the one who introduced the formula of a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” which China and Japan should cultivate, with the phrase being used by the Abe administration throughout his second stint.

Moreover, despite Abe’s ostensibly strong conservative credentials and his membership in the right-wing grassroots organization Nippon Kaigi, he has on occasion garnered criticism from right-wing groups, which accuse him of being too liberal due to upholding the so-called Murayama statement; acknowledging and apologizing for the “comfort women” issue; and showing extreme flexibility on the Northern Territories dispute with Russia.

In fact, it is Abe’s realpolitik toward Moscow that allegedly has lately caused much discontent within Japan’s Foreign Ministry. But while in 2006-2007, it pushed back against Abe’s grand strategy on the basis of it being too ideological and exclusive, the current rift is caused by Abe’s Russia approach being perceived by the Ministry as acquiescence. According to a source within Japan’s academic community insisting on anonymity, the Northern Territories issue has divided the government. Although the Abe cabinet and METI support a flexible solution of the dispute, with Russia only returning two smaller islands out of four to Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry insists on Japan’s traditional stance, demanding that all four islands be transferred back to Japan at once. The discord has become so pronounced that the Foreign Ministry reportedly tried to sabotage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in December 2016. While it is unlikely that the dissenting voices within the Ministry are going to sidetrack Abe’s diplomacy given the amount of control he has come to exert over the bureaucracy, the conflict underscores how conservative and averse to major policy shifts Japan’s Foreign Ministry is.

The turn of the Abe doctrine from values-oriented foreign policy to national interest-driven pragmatism was reflected in the change in diplomatic rhetoric as well, with Abe and his government largely abandoning the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity framework. While Yachi mentioned the Arc as late as 2013, and Abe adviser Shinichi Kitaoka endorsed “proactive pacifism” (another previously oft-repeated formula of Abe’s) in 2014, the administration virtually ceased talking about these ideological notions around 2015. While the Abe government continues calling on China to abide by the rule of law and follow international agreements, this rhetoric arguably does not stem from any ideological differences, but is rather rooted in Japan’s vital security interests which are best served by maintaining the U.S.-led status quo.

Thus, while Abe’s first administration espoused an ideological foreign policy vision undergirded by the notion of shared values, his current government has mostly abandoned it and drifted toward a more pragmatic, inclusive kind of diplomacy guided by economic considerations. This change does not negate Abe’s own views on politics and history, which could be described as nationalistic, but it demonstrates that he has largely been able to separate his personal ideas from his policies as prime minister.

Dmitry Filippov is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, the University of Sheffield, and a fellow at the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs