MEMOIR DEPICTS SHINZO ABE’S LIFELONG BATTLE
Shinzo Abe: A Memoir has just been published. Veteran journalist Goro Hashimoto, who recorded the late prime minister’s recollections in a series of interviews, says it was print-ready a year ago but notes that Abe himself put a hold on its publication. Hashimoto explains:
“Abe resigned as prime minister in August 2020 due to failing health. After becoming head of the Abe faction in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party in November 2021, he got increasingly stronger, his political clout growing by leaps and bounds. I believe he called the halt because he was afraid the impact would be too strong on some quarters if he published it then, pouring out his candid feelings at that juncture.”
The honest thoughts Abe reveals about people and happenings would indeed likely have come as a shock to some people. But only three months after his memoir was originally scheduled for publication, he was gunned down while campaigning in the ancient city of Nara. Abe’s widow Akie is said to have been responsible for authorizing the book’s publication this time around. I am profoundly grateful to Abe for having left behind a priceless memoir—an engaging record of the fierce battles he fought throughout his political life. He will be long remembered for the wisdom and genuine thoughtfulness he exhibited throughout his career. Appearing on my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show last Friday, Hashimoto had this to say:
“The devil is in the details, as they say. The colorful assortment of episodes Abe shares is fascinating. But these aren’t commonplace anecdotes about people or happenings that you hear at a tavern. Based on thorough preparation and a discerning eye for people, his anecdotes make the vivid picture of each scene come cinematically to life.”
My impression of the book requires just a short sentence—“Abe fought so hard!” His adversaries weren’t just liberal media outlets like the Asahi Shimbun, or his domestic political opponents, or foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or Barak Obama. Abe was actually forced to lock horns with the very bureaucrats within his own government who should have been using their knowledge and experience to support the realization of his policies. These bureaucrats went all out to defeat Abe because he was a politician who refused to march to the beat of their drums. First on the list of these adversaries were the bureaucrats within the powerful Ministry of Finance.
Abe raised the sale tax twice during his tenure—from 5% to 8% in April 2014, and to 10% in October 2019. He postponed the second tax hike twice. The reason: he felt the economic downturn following the first hike was too severe. In 2014, the Finance Ministry asserted that the economy “would soon recover from the 8% tax increase,” but contrary to their expectations, the hike resulted in negative GDP growth. In light of the hardships that would be imposed on the people of the country, Abe saw no room for a second tax hike, much to the chagrin of the bureaucrats.
In a swift counterattack, the bureaucrats talked Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who concurrently served as finance minister, into trying to persuade Abe to implement the tax increase. But Abe, citing specific numbers, powerfully convinced him that the economy was in fact weakening and another tax hike would further aggravate the situation. So, the ministry switched to a stunning scheme, which Abe describes as follows:
“Financial Ministry bureaucrats plotted to cajole Teiichi Tanigaki, then secretary-general of my own Liberal-Democratic Party, into criticizing my administration with the ultimate aim of forcing me out of office. They do not hesitate to try to topple an administration if that serves the interests of their ministry.”
Their plot failed to see the light of day, as Tanigaki refused to go along. Abe hadn’t necessarily always ignored the advice of the ministry. During his first short-lived administration (September 2006-September 2007), he says he “pretty much respected what the bureaucrats had to say.” The reason Abe turned to criticism of the ministry this time was that he was convinced that “raising the sales tax in a deflationary economy was simply mistaken.” Abe continues:
Source of Power of Finance Ministry
“I don’t particularly intend to demonize the Finance Ministry, but let me be frank in stating that all its bureaucrats are concerned about is the ups and downs of the state’s tax revenues, not the real economy…They are happy so long as fiscal discipline is maintained—even if the nation is ruined…And when cabinet approval ratings go down, the financial bureaucrats will gladly start preparing for a new administration, which they hope they will be able to lead.”
Hashimoto explained the source of the ministry’s power:
“Its budget officers are charged with allocation of the state’s tax revenues. Diet members are in trouble if they fail to secure budget allocations to satisfy their constituencies and implement policies. In other words, politicians generally ask a favor of—and are indebted to—budget officers. Here lies the power of the bureaucrats, who have the national tax at their disposal. They don’t have to mention field audits in order to intimidate politicians. This is how they build a network of personal connections among Diet members.
Hashimoto also observes:
“The Finance Ministry is indeed powerful. Abe is probably the only prime minister who managed to run a long-ruling administration while squarely confronting the ministry. A different administration would have chosen to go along with the ministry, making sure to not rub it the wrong way. But that wasn’t Abe’s cup of tea.”
Japan’s “lost 30 years” resulted from politicians having chosen to go along with the ministry which blindly pursued strict fiscal discipline. There would have been no reason for Abe to criticize the ministry had it succeeded in realizing Japan’s smooth economic growth and creating a society in which the younger generation had more employment opportunities. But for decades Japan was the only country that saw virtually no economy growth while the other economies of the world were registering reasonable growth.
The Japanese economy continued to suffer from deflation, the strict fiscal policy pursued by the Bank of Japan under Governor Masaaki Shirakawa (2008-2013) contributing significantly to the malaise. The Finance Ministry was failing to grow the nation’s economy or create new jobs. In order to counter the ministry’s moves to force him from office, Abe pledged to postpone the second tax increase in two tough elections—in the Lower House elections in December 2014 and the Upper House elections in July 2016. He came through both with flying colors.
Abe’s Pride and Optimism as Bona Fide Conservative
In his interviews with Abe, Hashimoto asks if his feud with the Finance Ministry continued in the seven years and eight months after he returned to power in 2012. Abe had this to say:
“My decision to defer the planned tax increase came as a set with the election. Otherwise, I might have been defeated.”
Let me emphasize this point again. Abe faced a horrendous situation in which a team of policy experts who were supposed to be following the direction set by the administration were in fact out to overthrow his cabinet—the tail out to wag the dog. Abe repelled the pressure by proving he had the support of the people. The public had by then had enough of the Finance Ministry’s policies that plunged the national economy into worsening deflation and created a society full of young people unable to find employment. So, the people supported Abe to the hilt no matter what the Asahi may have written or whatever new schemes the Finance Ministry might have set up against him.
But the Finance Ministry bureaucrats weren’t the only ones who were dead set to drag Abe down. Cut from the same cloth were also bureaucrats with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as detailed on page 342 and elsewhere in the memoir.
What touches one most about the memoir is that, throughout the battles he fought under such ugly circumstances, Abe never once lost the pride and optimism of a bona fide conservative. He took grappling with difficult challenges as “the mission of a conservative administration elected by the times.”
There are also a number of fascinating episodes involving foreign dignitaries. What was Abe’s response to President Obama’s criticism that Japan failed to import American cars because of residual Japanese non-tariff barriers? What did Abe tell Donald Trump who, believing that ownership of US military bases in Okinawa belonged to the US, asked how much land at Futenma Air Station cost per square foot? How did he react when Xi Jingping allegedly confided in him that he actually believed in neither communism nor socialism?
Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and incumbent Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike are among the Japanese politicians who appear in the memoir. Abe paints incisive and frank pictures of these and other politicians. After all, politics is all about power struggles.
Abe has left behind a priceless memoir—a deeply moving reminder that there has never been a Japanese politician who has fought for his people and his country as fiercely as Shinzo Abe.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,037 in the February 23, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho)