Is Japan making a sharp turn to the right? Appearances can be deceptive, especially during a political campaign when jingoistic posturing grabs attention. But talk is cheap. Polls indicate that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative nationalist party that ruled Japan for much of the past half century, will win the most seats in the Dec 16 elections for the lower house of the Diet and is likely to win an outright majority.
Shinzo Abe, 58, the former LDP prime minister infamous for denigrating comments about the comfort women and nicknamed KY (clueless), seems to be a lock for a second term. It would be a mistake, however, to read this prospect as grassroots support for Abe's hard-line foreign policy. The LDP's victory will owe more to the disappointing performance of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and voter frustration with festering economic problems than to nationalism run amok. The government recently confirmed that the Japanese economy has slumped into another recession, and households are feeling the pinch. In such times of trouble, Japanese voters seek refuge in the familiar. And what could be more familiar than the party that ran Japan for five decades of nearly uninterrupted rule?
None of this means that Abe will shy away from claiming a mandate for his hawkish agenda. He has promised to boost the status and budget of the military forces, reinterpret and revise the constitution to remove constraints on the military, station government personnel on a chain of disputed islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China), and bolster patriotic education in schools. He visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in October and has repeatedly lambasted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for not standing up to China. "We will strongly appeal to voters on the need to restore the Japan-U.S. alliance, which was badly damaged by the Democratic Party government. That will help us defend our beautiful country, territories and national interests," he vowed in November.
Abe, who first came to office in September 2006, was the most ideological premier in Japan's post-WWII era, but was forced out of office by party elders in September 2007 because he was seen as out of touch on bread-and-butter economic issues. He seems to have learned his lesson: In this campaign, he has touted plans to revive the economy through inflation targeting and massive quantitative easing, appealing to voters who are desperate for improvement and willing to gamble on Abe's aggressive plans to force the Bank of Japan to further ease its already loose monetary policy.
None of which is to say that Japan's rightward shift is a myth. In April, Shintaro Ishihara, 80, then the querulous, nationalistic governor of Tokyo, announced plans to buy three of the Senkaku islands from their private owner and raised nearly $20 million in public donations to do so. The central government, sensing a problem and seeking to pre-empt Ishihara's plans, announced in July that it would buy the islands instead, and sealed the deal in September.