Japan's Abe looks for friends abroad as popularity wanes at home


As his domestic approval ratings plummet, Shinzo Abe is finding a warmer reception overseas than in Japan. This photo from last week shows Abe reviewing the guard of honor in Santiago, where he arrived as a part of his Latin America trip. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed off his soccer skills in Brasilia last week, kicking a ball around with Zico, the Brazilian who once coached the Japanese team. The premier also had a friendly meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and inked some energy deals.

When he was in Mexico the week before, Abe and his wife, Akie, visited the ancient ruins in Teotihuacan, where they snapped photos alongside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera. Later, Peña Nieto praised Abe’s “bold transformations” of the Japanese in the economy.

Abe returned to Japan on Monday after a 10-day, five-nation tour of Latin America and the Caribbean, the latest mega-trip of his premiership. By the time he touched down in Tokyo, he had visited 47 countries since being elected to his position for the second time at the end of 2012.

Abe has rapidly become one of the best-traveled prime ministers in Japanese history. He told reporters at a news conference last month that he has been “working up a sweat” as he travels around the globe, in search of allies to help counter a rising China and energy deals to help power the Japanese economy.

But there might be another reason Abe likes to be overseas: The reception he gets abroad is increasingly warmer than that at home.


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, poses for a photo with former Brazilian soccer star Zico, right, and Brazil's new coach Dunga during a meeting Aug. 1 with Brazilian soccer players in Brasilia. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

As Abe zipped around Latin America last week, the news Web site Japan Today asked its readers whether Abe’s average of two trips abroad each month this year is too many. One respondent commented, “In fact, it might not be a bad thing if Abe stayed out of Japan completely.”

For the first year or so after he returned to power in December 2012, Abe enjoyed consistently high approval ratings and was widely viewed as the man who could take control after a period of political turmoil. In the eight years since he was first elected prime minister — a tenure brought to an early end in 2007 by health problems — Japan has gone through five prime ministers.

Reelected with a strong mandate for reform, he unleashed an ambitious “Abenomics” plan aimed at reviving the economy and laid out a vision for a “normal” Japan, free of its post-World War II shackles. His plans were welcomed in a country that has been overshadowed economically and geopolitically by China.

But now, it looks as if the gloss is coming off his premiership. A slew of recent polls has shown a sharp drop in his approval ratings.

A poll published by the Nikkei newspaper last week showed that Abe’s domestic approval rating had plummeted five percentage points since its last poll, to 48 percent, the lowest of his term and a sharp decline from the record high of 76 percent he clocked six months into his term. Meanwhile, a poll conducted by the Sankei newspaper, a conservative publication that strongly supports Abe, found that 46 percent of respondents disapproved of his government’s treatment of the economy.

The slump appears to be linked to Abe’s decision to reinterpret Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution to allow for “collective self defense,” broadly meaning that the Japanese military can defend allies — chiefly the United States — and do other currently banned activities such as protecting Japanese peacekeepers abroad.

Abe’s popularity could tank even more if he goes ahead with plans to increase the consumption tax at the end of the year.

Abe’s diplomacy is officially called diplomacy “that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map,” according to the government’s official English translation. But in Japanese, it is “diplomacy that looks down upon the terrestrial globe.”

“This conveys the image that Abe prefers to be playing the statesman traveling all over the world,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, noting that Abe had been visiting some of the more “obscure” corners of the world.

“He thinks that he is making Japan more visible. But, of course, the leaders that he should be meeting are the ones he hasn’t met yet: the leaders of China and Korea,” Nakano said.

Abe has been promoting an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” essentially based on the idea that Japan should form alliances with every country except China.

That is “simply not realistic,” Nakano said. “No country in the world is going to choose sides between Japan and China. No country is that stupid.”

But some analysts say that Japan must at least try to counterbalance China’s own energy-related diplomacy and that Abe is taking the right approach in trying to win friends abroad.

“China has been no less active in increasing ties with Latin American countries, with a view to securing natural resources from them,” the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, wrote in an editorial this weekend praising Abe’s active diplomacy, citing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own recent visit to Brazil.

“Japan should attach great importance to building reciprocal relationships with its Latin American partners, and emphasize its difference from China in dealing with these countries,” the paper said.

Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.
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