Shinzo Abe didn’t tell his British audience at London’s Guildhall anything new about Abenomics, his programme to reflate Japan’s economy back to health. But it is worth listening once again to the impassioned language with which he endeavoured to sell it.
Not since Junichiro Koizumi, the last prime minister to promise radical reform, has Japan had a leader so obviously energised by a sense of his own destiny. Mr Abe does not possess the charisma of the Elvis-loving Koizumi, but what he lacks in appeal he makes up for in zeal.
Mr Abe pledged to be “a drill bit that will break through [the] bedrock” of Japanese regulations. He promised to be “afire, burning with all the political strength I can muster”. To allow Japan’s economy to shrink would not just be unfortunate, he said, it would be nothing less than a “cardinal sin”. (In nominal terms, at least, Japan has evidently been a sinful place in recent years.)
Invoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, a figure admired by many of the
advisers of both Mr Koizumi and Mr Abe, he said there would be “no turning
back” on his radical programme to rid the country of enervating deflation.
If he didn’t succeed, he said, his life would not have been worth living.
Much of Mr Abe’s passion comes from his sense that Japan is slipping down
the international rankings because of its economic stagnation. “I consider
it both my role and my fate to restore and enrich the power of the nation,”
he said in words that echo Japan’s nineteenth century modernization.
Some of this may sound melodramatic and faintly ridiculous. Mr Abe is also
open to the accusation that he is living in the past. He sometimes sounds as
though he hankers after an era when a few “great powers” – a status to which
Japan once aspired, with tragic consequences for the rest of Asia as well as
its own people – claimed their place at the top of a global pile. Critics,
especially in China, see a dangerous nationalism and megalomaniacal
Yet such conviction, whatever its origins, is not to be sniffed at. Most
Japanese politicians have come and gone with barely a murmur. Unlike all
other leaders of recent years, with the exception of Mr Koizumi who lasted
five years, Mr Abe could be in office a reasonable length of time. If he
wins next month’s upper house election in style, as many expect, he should
not have to face the electorate again until 2016.
Abenomics might not work. Recent stock market, bond and currency gyrations
should give some pause. Talk of structural reform has so far been largely
just that: talk. We’ve heard before about the need to open up Japan and
unleash the power and talent of its under-utilised women. Not much has
happened on either front. Mr Abe, however, sounds as though he has been born
again. It’s the converts to a cause who are usually the most tenacious.