Japan Is Back: A Conversation with Shinzo Abe

By Tepperman, Jonathan | Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

Japan Is Back: A Conversation with Shinzo Abe


Tepperman, Jonathan, Foreign Affairs


After serving a brief, undistinguished term as Japan's prime minister in 2006-7, Shinzo Abe seemed destined for the political sidelines. Then, last December, he surged back into the limelight, retaking office in a landslide victory. The return to power of his Liberal Democratic Party (ldp)-which has run Japan for 54 of the last 58 years, including most of the last two "lost decades"-initially worried investors and pundits. But Abe immediately embarked on an ambitious campaign to revive Japan's economy, and, some six months later, his efforts seem to be paying off. On the foreign policy front, however, Abe-known in opposition as a conservative nationalist-has sparked controversy by seeming to question Japan's wartime record. In mid-May, as tensions were rising with Japan's powerful neighbors, he spoke with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in Tokyo.

This is your second tenure as prime minister. Your first was not so successful, but this time, everything seems different: your approval rating is over 70 percent, and the stock market is at a five-year high. What lessons did you learn from your past mistakes, and what are you doing differently this time?

When I served as prime minister last time, I failed to prioritize my agenda. I was eager to complete everything at once, and ended my administration in failure.

After resigning, for six years I traveled across the nation simply to listen. Everywhere, I heard people suffering from having lost jobs due to lingering deflation and currency appreciation. Some had no hope for the future. So it followed naturally that my second administration should prioritize getting rid of deflation and turning around the Japanese economy.

Let's say that I have set the priorities right this time to reflect the concerns of the people, and the results are increasingly noticeable, which may explain the high approval ratings.

I have also started to use social media networks like Facebook. Oftentimes, the legacy media only partially quote what politicians say. This has prevented the public from understanding my true intentions. So I am now sending messages through Facebook and other networks directly to the public.

So that way you get to bypass journalists?

Sort of [laughs]. No, I attach importance to face-to-face interviews like this one, and I have never been media shy. My point was that what I actually mean sometimes gets lost when it is only partially- even mistakenly-quoted.

You've said that your economic agenda is your top priority. Abenomics has three "arrows": a 10 trillion yen fiscal stimulus, inflation targeting, and structural reform. You've fired the first two arrows already. What will the third look like?

The third arrow is about a growth strategy, which should be led by three key concepts: challenge, openness, and innovation. First, you need to envision what kind of Japan you wish to have. That is a Japan that cherishes those three concepts. Then, you get to see areas where you excel. Take health care, for instance. My country has good stock, which enables Japanese to live longer than most others. Why not use medical innovation, then, both to boost the economy and to contribute to the welfare of the rest of the world?

My recent trip to Russia and the Middle East assured me that there is much room out there for Japan's medical industries. The same could be said for technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, of which Japan has plenty. But to foster innovation, you must remain open.

But Japan has constraints on its economy that keep it from growing: high agricultural subsidies, overregulation, underutilization of women, a poor immigration policy. Past prime ministers have tried to deal with these problems and have run into a wall. What reforms will you focus on?

Time is not on our side. Prolonged deflation and the resulting economic stagnation that has lasted for 15 years have kept my country almost standing still, while the rest of the world has gone far. …

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