KOICHI NAKANO. The Leader Who Was ‘Trump Before Trump’ (The New York Times)

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn.

TOKYO — Ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to New York in November 2016 to congratulate president-elect Donald Trump on his fresh victory, Mr. Abe has earned international attention (and occasionally ridicule) for his exceptional eagerness to flatter Mr. Trump. The summit meeting this week in Tokyo was their 11th as their countries’ leaders — with yet another (fifth) game of golf, complete with joint selfie on the course. Mr. Trump was treated to a sumo match and the chance to present the winner with a “Trump Cup.” As the visit ended, Mr. Abe gushed about his “very close personal relationship with Donald” and called the United States–Japan alliance “the closest in the whole world.”

Who knows if Mr. Abe’s cozying up to Mr. Trump is genuine, opportunistic or strategic. But perhaps because their apparent connection exposes their differences — establishment insider versus populist outsider; experienced leader versus political novice — it seems to have overshadowed the dark similarities between them. Yet it takes one to know one: Under Mr. Abe, Japan has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn.

Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, was dead-on when, addressing lawmakers from Mr. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (L.D.P.) in March, he said, “Abe was Trump before Trump.” (He meant this as a compliment.) Mr. Abe, he reportedly said, was the first nationalist leader to win an election in, and then govern, an industrialized democracy — a “great hero.”

Indeed, back in 2012, long before Mr. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” Mr. Abe had campaigned on the slogan “Take Back Japan.” Mr. Abe has repeatedly argued that Japan needs to “escape from the postwar regime” — and break free from the pacifist Constitution that the Allied forces drafted for it after its defeat in 1945.

Mr. Abe once remarked that the document was a “disgraceful Constitution.” He prompted massive protests in 2014 and 2015 after bypassing the constitutional provisions that unambiguously commit Japan to renouncing war: Rather than seeking a formal amendment of the charter, Mr. Abe radically reinterpreted it in legislation that his party rammed through the Parliament, known as the Diet. Now, Japan can go to war without even being attacked, as long as the government deems that the nation’s survival is in danger.

In 2015 and 2017, Mr. Abe ignored calls by opposition members of the Diet to convene an extraordinary session to discuss controversial policies and government actions — even though Article 53 of the Constitution guarantees the right to such demands.

Time and again, Mr. Abe has dissolved the Diet for politically expedient reasons by exploiting ambiguities in the Constitution, a ploy to try to divide and conquer his opponents. The budget committees of both houses — which exercise oversight over the executive branch — have not met for weeks, despite the opposition’s repeated requests that they do.

Civil liberties and press freedom have taken a hit under the Abe administration. The state secrets law, which gives bureaucrats virtually unchecked discretion to decide what is a state secret, was enacted in 2013; in 2017, it was an anti-conspiracy law that gives the authorities sweeping surveillance powers over suspected criminals. Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary and government spokesman, has singled out and bullied a particularly inquisitive female reporter. Japan’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index fell from 11th place in 2010 to 67th this year.

Even as it tries to silence its critics, the government has displayed great tolerance for extremist and bigoted views in its midst. Taro Aso, Mr. Abe’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, drew criticism in 2008 (when he was the secretary-general of the L.D.P.), by likening the Democratic Party of Japan, then the main opposition group, to the Nazis, who had brought disaster to Germany. But then in 2013, he cited Nazi “techniques” as a model for how to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution. (“Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?”) Also in 2013, Shigeru Ishiba, then the secretary-general of the L.D.P., said that public protests against the state secrets bill were “an act of terrorism.” Mr. Abe kept both men in their posts long after they made those comments.

And just last year, Mio Sugita, an L.D.P. lawmaker and protégée of Mr. Abe’s, said that same-sex couples “don’t produce children,” adding, “they lack productivity and, therefore, do not contribute to the prosperity of the nation.”

The Abe government’s penchant for historical revisionism — for glorifying Japan’s wartime past, for denying that the Japanese military committed atrocities — is well documented. Several photos have emerged showing the L.D.P.’s policy chief and two members of Mr. Abe’s cabinet with neo-Nazis and far-right hate groups. In 2016, the minister in charge of Okinawa affairs refused to denounce a police officer’s pejorative and racist slurs (“natives,” “Chinamen”) against protesters opposing the presence of United States military bases in the prefecture. Again, Mr. Abe did not dismiss any of these ministers.

The Abe administration is, in other words, rejecting the rules of the democratic game, denying the legitimacy of its opponents, curtailing the civil liberties of dissenters and tolerating or encouraging some forms of hate speech — all precisely the indicators of budding authoritarianism that the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn about in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die.”

While the book focuses on Mr. Trump, it also touches on other notable cases of elected leaders who have perverted the democratic process, including Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Viktor Orban of Hungary. Yet it does not mention Mr. Abe, even though he, too, meets the authors’ criteria.

The oversight is common, and it is revealing.

As illiberal populism destabilizes the West, Japan’s allies and partners see Mr. Abe as a guardian of the international liberal order — despite his own illiberal record at home.

Michael Green, a former staffer on the National Security Council under George W. Bush now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has argued that “domestic political stability” in Japan has allowed Mr. Abe “to prioritize his foreign policy agenda” and work on “shaping regional and global institutions to preserve the rules-based international order.” According to the Lowy Institute, a leading think tank in Australia, “Japan has become the leader of the liberal order in Asia.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has called Mr. Abe “the senior figure” in the region and said he “leaned on” Mr. Abe’s “real wisdom.”

How has Mr. Abe come to seem so benevolent?

The simplest answer may be that he is not a populist outsider, but an ultimate establishment insider: the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a prime minister (and suspected war criminal). Mr. Abe came to power without needing to ride any highly visible and disruptive movement; his rise didn’t call attention.

He also has become better at feigning over time. He was more openly nationalistic during his first stint in government, in 2006-7, and that quickly failed. Mr. Abe has since learned to preach the rule of law to the outside world while frequently ignoring it himself. He has skillfully presented his assertive foreign and security policies — an expression of his revisionism — as Japan’s readiness to play a fuller role in assisting the mainstay of the international order that is the United States.

The Abe administration’s priorities have conveniently dovetailed with major goals of the United States’s military strategy — including pre-Trump ones, like the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” — which hinge on reinforcing the American-Japanese alliance. The state secrets law, the move toward collective self-defense, the maintenance of United States bases in Okinawa — none of Mr. Abe’s signature domestic policies undercut America’s interests.

In that sense, the United States has been complicit — if tacitly or unwittingly — in Japan’s quiet turn toward authoritarianism under Mr. Abe. Now, with Mr. Trump in the White House, Mr. Abe may be able to follow his authoritarian instincts more openly — so long as he can keep Mr. Trump happy at the same time.

This article was published by The New York Times on the 29th of May 2019. 

Koichi Nakano is a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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