Japan is a nation in transition. The country's social and political structures are evolving, as is the world around it. And its political order is changing, too. On Sunday, lawmakers from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will adopt a new rule allowing party presidents to serve up to three consecutive terms. The rule is designed, albeit implicitly, to enable the party's current head, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to potentially extend his time in office to 2021, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japan's post-war history.
The motives behind the LDP's rule change are fairly straightforward. Abe is the undisputed leader of what has become the ruling party's dominant faction, a group of conservative lawmakers whose core policy priority is to restore Japan's military might and its standing as East Asia's leading power. More important, since taking office in 2012, Abe has managed the rare feat of bringing consensus to Japanese politics.
For much of the century and a half since Western powers "opened" Japan, the country's political system has been mired in exhaustive and often debilitating policy debates and factional struggles, punctuated by moments of consensus. The brief respites from political confusion have yielded pivotal developments in Japan's history: the Meiji Restoration, which transformed the country into a modern power between 1868 and 1914; the New Order policy that preceded World War II; and the Yoshida Doctrine, the Cold War strategy in which Japan bound itself to the United States and pursued a mercantilist foreign policy. In each instance, the shifts took place on the heels of prolonged political and economic turmoil and in the midst of dramatic changes in Japan's strategic environment.
The period of consensus that Abe has ushered in is no different. In the two decades after the Cold War's end, Japan was adrift. The country's economy was stagnant and its foreign policy rudderless as the Soviet threat faded and the United States shifted its focus to other regions, namely the Middle East. Japan's political system descended into disarray. From 1991 to 2012, the country went through 15 prime ministers, many of whom served a year or less in office.
From 1991 to 2012, Japan went through 15 prime ministers, many of whom served a year or less in office.
By the time general elections rolled around in 2012, however, Japan's circumstances had changed. Its economic problems — from chronic underemployment to a shrinking and aging workforce to the political, institutional and cultural barriers that have long impeded efforts to correct these issues — had gotten worse. China, meanwhile, had turned into the kind of formidable threat that Japan needed to reorient its foreign policy. Neither issue was new; in fact, previous prime ministers had tried to build consensus around them both. But it was only after the financial crisis of 2008-09 — when China's economic growth continued unfazed while the world's leading economies struggled — that Japan's leaders understood the urgent need to get their country back on track. After the preceding administration crumbled in 2011, having lost voter confidence for its response to the Tohuku earthquake crisis, Abe and his party seized their opportunity, winning the 2012 general elections by a landslide. The prime minister then capitalized on the country's mounting structural challenges to advance a national rejuvenation plan that enjoys broad public support to this day.
Considering Abe's success, the LDP's decision to allow him to extend his tenure as party president is not surprising. Whatever policy differences divide the ruling party's leadership, they pale in comparison with the LDP's desire to maintain its parliamentary dominance and to pass the reforms necessary to spur sustainable growth in Japan's economy. Most of the party's members likewise agree that Japan must take a more proactive approach to countering and containing China, though not all its leaders support revising the Japanese Constitution to allow the use of force to defend other countries. As long as the LDP is pursuing these goals, and as long as Abe maintains his popularity, the party's leadership has little incentive to risk undermining the rare consensus that the prime minister has forged.
The question now is how the ruling party should proceed with its various legislative initiatives. Once the new term limit is in place, Abe may call for general elections this year or early next year to clear any lingering political hurdles ahead of his final few years in office. Otherwise, he may opt to delay elections — legally, they must take place by September 2018 — to focus on pushing through labor and other structural reforms or perhaps to try to amend the constitution. Abe will be more inclined toward the second option if he and the LDP fear that the opposition, which is currently weak and divided, could start to coalesce in the coming months. After all, a united opposition could threaten the LDP's parliamentary supermajority, making it harder for Abe to achieve his policy goals after the next general election.
Regardless of what the prime minister decides, Japan's government is more unified today than it has been for several generations. But unity has its pitfalls. In the past, political accord in Japan has at times bred miscalculation and disaster. The problems that Abe faces today are not as urgent as the ones that a generation of Japanese leaders encountered in the runup to World War II. Still, he can't assume that his next three years in office will be smooth sailing.