Current Issues and Policies
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Current Issues and Policies

Evaluation of Japanese Politics and Diplomacy in 2018 and Outlook in 2019
2019.01.04  Friday
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Myon woo Lee
Evaluation of Japanese Politics and Diplomacy in 2018 and Outlook in 2019



Current Issues and Policies 2019-1

January 4, 2019

Dr. Lee Myon-woo

Vice President, the Sejong Institute



Japan had a comparatively silent year in 2018. In domestic politics, as Denny Tamaki, jointly nominated by the opposition parties, won the Okinawa gubernatorial election in September, the confrontation between the Okinawa prefectural government and the central government in Tokyo over the relocation of the U.S. air base in Futenma will linger on. The government has had an acute discord with the opposition over various domestic issues – the legislation to authorize integrated resorts including casinos, revision of labor law, revision of the law on immigration and refugees, among others.

Aside from that, the special provision to the Imperial House Law related to the succession of the Emperor was decided at the cabinet conference in March; the Democratic Progressive Party and the Party of Hope merged into ‘Democratic Party for the People’ in May; and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo sealed his third term for the LDP president at the LDP leadership contest in September. In foreign affairs, Japan held a series of summits with its neighbors: the ROK-Japan summit was held at the occasion of PyeongChang Winter Olympics; the Japanese leader visited China for the first time in seven years in October, agreeing to resume the currency swap deal; and he met President Putin in December at the G20 summit, deciding to establish a high-level consultative mechanism for the bilateral peace treaty. Moreover, in December, the Japanese Cabinet adopted a new defense guideline envisioning the enhancement of long-distance operational capabilities by enabling the possession of aircraft carriers.

Despite these important political events, the author indicates that Japan spent a relatively tranquil year in 2018 mostly due to the absence of nationwide elections. Although the paper described the ripples of the Okinawa gubernatorial election result, it has a tremendous difference with nationwide elections in which the whole nation debates on national affairs. In this regard, the year 2019, with the unified local elections and the House of Councillors elections scheduled each in April and July, will take a slightly different trajectory. This paper will prospect on Japanese politics and diplomacy in 2019 beginning from Prime Minister Abe’s victory at the LDP presidential election. This is because the state of affairs within the ruling LDP has the influence amounting to nationwide elections.


Shinzo Abe’s Third Term as the LDP President and Japanese Politics in 2019

As already mentioned, the most significant event in Japanese politics in 2018 was Prime Minister Abe’s victory at the September 20 LDP presidential election – clinching his third term as the president. As Prime Minister Abe was predicted to win, the key was the margin of victory against the other candidate Shigeru Ishiba. In this election, candidates vie for 810 votes, 405 votes from lawmakers and the rest half from rank-and-file members of the party. Prime Minister Abe won 553 votes in total (68.3 percent), 329 from the fellow lawmakers (81.2 percent) and 224 votes from party members (55.3 percent). Although he failed to hit the goal of 70-percent threshold in the first attempt for the third term presidency since the so-called ‘1955 system,’ he was close enough. However, former LDP Secretary General Ishiba gained 254 votes, 31.4 percent, in total – 73 votes from the Diet members (18.0 percent) and 181 votes from the general party members (44.7 percent). Generally, the media commented that Ishiba had ‘put up a good fight’ against the incumbent prime minister, even though he would have been disappointed with the results as he might have had hopes to overcome the shortcomings in winning votes among Diet members by obtaining support among the party members. Despite the fact that his proportion of votes among rank-and-file party members dropped from 55 percent in 2012 to 44.7 percent last year, the number of votes obtained actually increased from around 230,000 to 280,000. This manifests the dissatisfaction against Prime Minister Abe as well as positive views for Ishiba as the alternative, alluding to the possibility of Ishiba resurging as the next leader of the governing LDP.

 In spite of the different assessments, the LDP presidential election ended with Prime Minister Abe’s cruising win and undoubtedly consolidated a foundation for solid leadership that empowers Prime Minister Abe’s policy drive. Accordingly, it is necessary to take note of what Prime Minister Abe pursues in order to predict Japanese politics and foreign policy in 2019. In relation to this, Prime Minister Abe summarized his policy tasks in three different aspects at the post-election press conference: ‘rejuvenation of disaster-stricken areas and Japan’s social security system to become a system oriented to all generations,’ ‘settlement of post-war Japanese diplomacy,’ and ‘constitutional amendment’. This paper prospects the year 2019 centered on the latter two challenges. The number of previous failures encapsulates how difficult the task of ‘constitutional amendment’ is and it also applies to Prime Minister Abe’s LDP which controls both houses of the National Diet. One example is the opposition within the LDP. Before the LDP leadership election, former LDP Secretary General Ishiba expressed that the submitted LDP’s draft related to the ‘peace clause’ – adding the third clause to validate the existence of the Self-Defense Force and leaving the first two clauses as it is – may cause confusion. He added that the second clause – that stipulates renunciation of any war potential - should be revised. Aside from Ishiba, other voices of opposition to the submitted draft circulate within the LDP – some suggest that Article 9 should remain untouched.

The larger problems in revising the constitution are how to draw the coalition partner Komeito’s cooperation and clear the hurdle of a two-thirds majority in the National Diet and majority in the referendum. The moderate Komeito, born out of the religious group ‘Soka Gakkai,’ has held a passive and supine stance on the amendment – ‘addition to the constitution (Kaken).’ The LDP suggested adding the third clause that recognizes the existence of the Self-Defense Force - predominantly interpreted as a move respecting the Komeito’s position. The LDP will have headaches as Komeito will note the public opinion warily albeit such consideration.

Komeito is a vital political partner for the LDP and Prime Minister Abe in two aspects. First, the Komeito’s organizational and mobilization capacities, stemming from ‘Soka Gakkai,’ hugely contribute to the LDP’s rule and the formation of ‘LDP-Komeito coalition.’ While it may not be a large number overall, a small number of Komeito votes are enough to determine the winner in the current Japanese electoral system of first-past-the-post system in parallel with and party-list proportional representation. Second, Komeito, based on this organizational capacity, holds some seat in the House of Councillors; this helps the LDP secure enough seats to adopt key legislative bills at the National Diet – especially the House of Councillors.

Fully aware of these elements, Komeito has kept the LDP in check and reaped benefits within the parameters of sustaining the ruling coalition. Nevertheless, Komeito has questions on whether this is the right time to pursue constitutional amendment given the ultimate goal of remaining in power, in addition to the reluctant attitude toward the constitutional amendment itself. For example, pursuing constitutional amendment may have negative ramifications for the regular elections when the LDP leadership election suggested that 44.7 percent of LDP members have a disapproving attitude toward Prime Minister Abe’s style of political management, as revealed in the treatment of the ‘Kake and Morimoto scandal.’

In the same context, the Takeshita faction within the LDP espoused candidate Ishiba. Considering these circumstances, the Abe Cabinet will have difficulties securing a majority in the referendum. Then, in light of the adoption of the constitutional amendment in the National Diet, all eyes will be on the regular elections of members of the House of Councillors planned in July 2019. Despite Prime Minister Abe’s keen interest, the LDP-Komeito coalition may lose control of the two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors because of the ‘backlash in prefectures not in the vicinity of Tokyo’ or the predictable LDP loss in the number of seats due to the declining approval ratings. Provided that the circumstances unfold in such direction, Prime Minister Abe’s stricken leadership will focus on the next election cycle rather than discussions on the revision of the constitution. The Japanese politics in 2019 may ‘tread on a path of unforeseeable darkness.’


An Outlook of Japan’s Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in 2019

Japanese diplomacy in 2018 explicitly revealed its realist orientation. While it is well known that the alliance with the U.S. forms the central axis of Japanese diplomacy, it had been able to achieve partial outcomes in improving relations with China and Russia – maintaining amicable relations with the U.S. under the Trump administration. This owes to the point that Prime Minister Abe strived to resolve foreign policy issues under the slogan of ‘settlement of the post-war Japanese diplomacy.’ Nevertheless, it is not easy to foresee whether these efforts will lead to tangible outcomes in 2019 as Japan has to cope with sophisticated territorial disputes with Russia and China.

For example, Prime Minister Abe had two summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently. Meeting at the sidelines of the East Asia Summit held in Singapore in mid-November, Abe and Putin agreed to sign a peace treaty within three years based on the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. In Buenos Aires, the two leaders met again at the G20 Summit early December and agreed to constitute a high-level bilateral consultative body headed by foreign ministers to hasten the negotiations on the peace treaty. In this context, while the two countries will likely to reach a backstage agreement related to the territorial issue before the G20 summit scheduled in June 2019 in Osaka, the territorial issues are hard to predict as it entwines domestic and international politics.

In December 2016, the Japan-Russia summit in Tokyo began with expectations on the resolution related to the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands based on the fact that Prime Minister Abe approached Russia which has been under sanctions from the West due to the Ukrainian crisis. However, the summit only dealt with bilateral economic cooperation without remarks on the territorial issue. This originates from President Putin’s perception that the territorial issue needs a long-term resolution based on the trust built after bilateral cooperation such as economic cooperation. It is worthy to observe whether this confidence-building for some time will actually bear fruits in 2019.

Establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea also counts in as one of such challenges in the ‘settlement of the post-war Japanese diplomacy’ and also an uneasy task with many obstacles to overcome. The well-known abduction issue and the denuclearization issue are the major obstacles that expose a vast perception gap between the two sides – and requires a considerable amount of time and efforts to resolve. It is fortunate that Prime Minister Abe and Japan perceive the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea as one of the key tasks in the ‘settlement of the post-war Japanese diplomacy.’ It implies that Japan could abandon the existing hardline stance against North Korea for the development of nuclear and missile technology and that it opens up and raises the possibility of consultation between Japan and North Korea.

At the post-election press conference, Prime Minister Abe not only set forth the normalization and establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea as one of the tasks for the ‘settlement of the post-war Japanese diplomacy’ but also expressed a proactive stance on engaging with North Korea – he replied to one journalist’s question on the abduction issue that he will not spare any opportunity to resolve the issue and he wants to hold a summit that leads to the resolution of the issue. At the 73rd UN General Assembly session on September 25, he took a step further, “Japan's policy of seeking to settle the unfortunate past and normalize its relations with North Korea once the abductions, nuclear, and missile issues are resolved will not change. We will be unstinting in our assistance to unleash the potential North Korea holds. … In order to resolve the abductions issue, I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start, and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong-Un.”


Compared to Abe’s address at the UN in 2017 that assigned 80 percent on the denunciation of North Korea and appeal for international pressure, the changes in Prime Minister Abe’s and Japan’s viewpoint is clearly visible. While the complex interplay of various changes, transformation of DPRK-U.S. relations and inter-Korean relations, ensuing possibility of changes in North Korea, trade dispute with the U.S., etc., underlie the change in Japan’s foreign policy, the Japanese prime minister should also have considered how to leave his mark in history as he enters the final three years of prime-ministership. Taking these into account, the predicaments of Japanese foreign policy, namely, the territorial issue with Russia and the normalization of diplomatic relations with North Korea, could be cautiously predicted to have significant swings in 2019. 

These signs of changes by Prime Minister Abe and Japan has huge implications for South Korea’s policy toward Japan. Cutting to the chase, Abe’s Japan demands the South Korean government should spare no efforts and sincerity to entice Tokyo to take a positive course in its policy regarding South Korea. It casts the question of whether the current South Korean government’s ‘two-track’ policy – separating history issues and other issues – will induce Japan’s cooperation. It may seem wise at first to pursue a two-way approach, it has the potential to have adverse effects – piling up misunderstanding rather than building confidence, thus reducing the space for compromise. The idea to ‘separate politics and economy’ has actually been inclined to one side due to such risk. Hence, I hope the current government’s ‘two-track’ policy to be more sophisticated in 2019 to avoid ‘spreading too thin.’




This article is based on the author’s personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.


*Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.