JAPAN’S OUTGOING prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, lasted about 16 months in office. That’s par for the course for a country that, for the better part of a decade, has traded in its leaders every year.
The latest model, Shinzo Abe, already did a one-year stint as prime minister, from September 2006 to September 2007. Now he will have a second chance. His Liberal Democratic Party, after about three years as a minority party, will return to try to govern the country it led for most of the first half-century after World War II.
The political instability both reflects and contributes to the intractability of Japan’s challenges. With 127 million people and an average per capita income of $35,000, Japan remains a wealthy and smoothly functioning nation. But its population is aging and shrinking, sapping confidence and innovation. The political system has been unable to embrace measures that might reinvigorate society, from increased immigration to better conditions for working mothers.
For U.S. policymakers, the instability has been frustrating. No sooner have they mastered a foreign minister’s name than he is out the door. But Japan remains a crucial ally as the Obama administration executes its much-discussed “pivot” to Asia. With China flexing its muscles and touting its alternative, undemocratic path to development, not only the United States but Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines increasingly see Japan, with its shared democratic values, as an important balancing force.
The question is whether an Abe regime will enhance or diminish that role. Mr. Abe is committed to improving Japan’s military capabilities and expanding its usefulness in regional alliances. During his first tenure, he worked on improving relations with fellow democracies, including India and Australia. But he also has shown a tendency to minimize Japan’s historical culpability in Asian hostilities, still a sore point for many neighbors.
These two strands — a strong military and historical revisionism — tend to interweave among Japanese conservatives. But, in fact, the latter impedes the former, alarming neighbors and many Japanese as well. The more willing Mr. Abe is to accept the reality of Japanese history, the better positioned his nation will be to play a constructive role in Asian security.
No one will be watching more closely than the Chinese, whose leaders fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment to solidify their domestic standing. Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has been following this pattern, talking tough with regard to disputed islands and, last week, sending observation planes to fly over them in what Japan decried as an invasion of its sovereignty.
The islands dispute is but one facet of China’s growing assertiveness, as it lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea and tangles with Vietnam, the Philippines and others. But the argument over the islands — known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyus — is particularly dangerous. Both Japan and China have much more to gain from cooperation than confrontation. Hopefully both new leaders will recognize that.