Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants to restore “animal spirits” in the long-moribund Japanese economy. That kind of muscular talk makes some critics anxious, but Abe gave a compelling explanation Thursday of how he’s trying to push Japan out of its 15-year “doldrums.”
In an hour-long interview at his office here, Abe offered a preview of the upbeat message he’ll bring to Washington next month. A simple summary is that Japan is back — as a growing economy, an enthusiastic friend of the United States and a counterweight to Chinese power in Asia.
For an embattled Obama administration, Abe’s visit should be a tonic. He may be the most enthusiastically pro-American foreign leader around these days. He expressed the “fullest confidence” in President Obama, who last year pledged U.S. support for Japan in its confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands. He lauded Obama’s “pivot to Asia” as “indispensable,” and he called the U.S.-Japan alliance “unshakable.”
As for the administration’s hopes that Abe’s visit will cement the free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe said only that Japan was “into the final leg of negotiation.”
This embrace of Washington is partly the self-interested stance of a leader who depends on the United States for security guarantees. But it’s also the affirmation of a country that, while it has receded from American consciousness during its lost decade and a half, shares with this country fundamental values of democracy and openness.
Abe walks a tightrope in his efforts to invigorate Japan. He wants a more robust Japanese defense policy without kindling fears of renewed militarism. He seeks a less apologetic, inward-looking Japan but said he doesn’t want to undo apologies by previous prime ministers about procurement of “comfort women” or other sins of World War II.
“On the question of comfort women,” he said, “when my thought goes to these people, who have been victimized by human trafficking and gone through immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description, my heart aches.” An aide said this was the first time he had publicly referred to “trafficking” in connection with the women.
The Japanese leader favors new security legislation that would bolster Japan’s “self-defense forces,” allowing them to assist U.S. vessels that come under attack, for example. But he also touted recent improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, including discussion of new communications links to avoid mishaps in the East China Sea.
Abe’s most intriguing comment was that as a “fourth arrow” of his stimulus program, he wants “policies that will really support the growth capabilities of the local regions.” He talked of getting Japanese out of giant cities like Tokyo, where birthrates and expectations about the future are low, to smaller cities and towns. “Then the working people there will raise the birthrate and there will be a better work-life balance,” he said.
Abe has fired the first three arrows of his “Abenomics” recovery policy — modest fiscal spending, highly stimulative monetary policy and structural reforms that still are mostly on paper. He’s had some success: The Nikkei average has more than doubled since he regained the premiership in 2012; gross domestic product is up, unemployment is down and exports are rising.
But even Abe concedes that, despite the improving numbers, the psychology of slow growth persists. “What we have not been able to achieve so far is the actual feeling that this macroeconomic growth is happening,” he said.
“The first thing about the deflationary mind-set is the loss of confidence, saying that Japan will never be able to grow,” he explained. In the years of stagnation, companies became “very cautious, overly cautious” about investment, and consumers preferred to “wait and wait,” rather than buy. “Japan is in the process of regaining ‘animal spirits,’ ” he said, using economist John Maynard Keynes’s famous two-word definition of what produces sustained economic growth.
Abe makes an unlikely reformer. He’s the scion of one of Japan’s leading political families, and he’s the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is so tied to entrenched business and agricultural interests that many analysts see it as the enemy of change. But Abe seems willing to take on his fellow party bosses, if necessary — as in his push for reforms that could sharply reduce the power of the agricultural lobby.
“I want to make them reformers,” he said of the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership. As with so much about Abe, that’s an admirable aspiration, but one that’s not yet achieved. Japan has been the forgotten ally in recent years. But Abe’s goal of a stronger Japan, anchored to the United States, would make for a more stable Asia.
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