Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mr. Abe and His "100 Million"

The minister in charge Katsunobu Kato, 
appointed to lead the “100 million” effort
Why is Japan's prime minister using wartime propaganda buzzwords to promote his social and economic programs?

And why should the world care?

by Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based consultant to the financial and diplomatic communities and author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society and an APP member

First published in Number 1 Shimbun, Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing a new set of national economics, labor and natality initiatives that proudly promise to preserve 80 percent of the current population without immigration, increase the size of the economy by a third in five years and turn back the clock on sex, work and marriage to the 1970s. Imagine that the program is called the “Arbeitszeit macht Freizeit” (“Work Time Makes Free Time”) Program, that she is appointing a special cabinet minister with that title and is insisting that there is no resemblance between the program’s name and the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” slogan hanging over the gates at Auschwitz.

Then imagine that Angela Merkel, rather than being a former East German citizen from a Protestant church family with no ties to the Nazi era (which she is), instead is the scion of a leading Third Reich family – Albert Speer’s eldest granddaughter, perhaps – and a well-known apologist for the excesses of the Nazi state.

The world would likely have a nervous breakdown.

Yet the world’s financial and political commentators merely shrugged when on Sept. 24 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his “Ichi oku so katsuyaku” (100 Million Making Eye Opening Efforts As One” initiative – a.k.a. The New Three Arrows of Abenomics.) Two weeks later, when he introduced his new Cabinet, it included Katsunobu Kato in a newly created position in charge of driving the program.

What is stunning is the decision to use the historically fraught number 100 million (ichi oku) as his target population level.

One cannot fault the overall goals of the New Three Arrows. After all, Japan’s current population level of 127 million is unsustainable when the number of births per woman is at 1.42 and immigration is a negligible force. Indeed, the population is already dropping, last year by 268,000. If no special measures are taken, the population will fall below 100 million somewhere around the year 2050 and decline to around 80 million by the millennium. Japan’s relative and absolute economic power will decline in step, leaving the country a still populous but minor player at the end of the century.

That the ambitious Mr. Abe wants more for his country than a slide into sleepy irrelevance is not surprising. What is stunning is the decision by Abe, the grandson of the wartime government’s munitions minister and a known admirer of Imperial Japan, to use the historically fraught number 100 million (ichi oku) as his target population level.

ANYONE WITH A PASSING knowledge of pre-1945 propaganda can rattle off a string of ichi oku phrases, none of which invokes happy memories. There is the commandment for ideological unanimity – Ichi oku isshin ("100 Million Persons: One Mind”) – or the encouragement to press forward with the war effort – Susume ichi oku hi no tama da (“Forward The 100 Million Balls of Flame!”). There is the call for to be prepared for extermination of every single Japanese citizen in the final defense of the country: Ichi oku gyokusai (“100 Million Crushed Jewels”).

In his speech announcing Japan’s surrender, Emperor Hirohito thanked the ichi oku shusho (“the 100 million commoners”) for their efforts, vain as those efforts turned out to be. And most disturbingly, there is the infamous call of Prince Higashikuni, the interim prime minister after the surrender, for an Ichi oku so zange (“100 Million Reflecting Upon Their Responsibility as One”) – as if the Japanese people were collectively responsible for the country’s descent into war rather than the nation’s leaders – where Higashikuni’s phrase is the same ichi oku that appears in Shinzo Abe’s new program.

Ever since announcing the new program and ministerial post, Abe has been denying any link between his 100 million population goal and the wartime propaganda use of that number as a shorthand for “all Japanese.” Mr. Abe’s protestations, however are undercut by the peculiar and inaccurate official government English translation of ichi oku so katsuyaku as “Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens.” If there is nothing wrong with saying “100 Million As One” in Japanese, why does the English translation not use that phrase as well?

Abe also maintains open ties to the revisionist and denialist Nippon Kaigi, and addressed that organization’s mass meeting via video message

If the use of the 100 million figure is dog whistle politics – a signal sent out to those whose political ears are set to hear a specific pitch – it is not as if Abe’s continuing allegiance to Japan’s revisionist right is a secret. While he has suspended his annual pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine in order to secure summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, he still sends cash donations and presents to the shrine during its spring and autumn festivals and on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s acceptance of defeat in World War II.

Abe also maintains open ties to the revisionist and denialist Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), and addressed that organization’s “Let’s Revise the Constitution – the Great Gathering of the 10,000” mass meeting at the Nippon Budokan via video message on Nov. 10. He also tucks into his schedule meetings or visits, such as pilgrimages to Ise Shrine or paying respects at the grave of anti-Tokugawa activist Shoin Yoshida [his home was mysteriously included among Japan's UNESCO World Industrial Heritage sites approved this past July], that appear benign but which revisionists can read as quiet assurances that the hard right’s longtime champion still holds their issues and values close to his heart.

IS IT WRONG FOR Abe to pander to the revisionists or blend his economic revival and social inclusion programs with elements of his romantic view of pre-1945 Japan? Not necessarily. A politician has to demonstrate his gratitude to the knot of loyalists who have been with him from the very beginning, granting them some measure of their wishes and taking stances they will applaud. He cannot turn his back on his original supporters, even if he has since supplanted them with richer and more socially acceptable backers – a political reality the great political satirist Molly Ivins summed up in the phrase, “You gotta dance with them what brung you.” [Abe also spent nearly two hours on November 28th at the revanchist Sosei Nippon gathering.]

The revisionists “brought” us Shinzo Abe – at least the first Shinzo Abe premiership of 2006-7. Ignoring them and their issues would represent a risky bet by the prime minister on the economy’s performing above trend or his new friends in big business staying as close to him in the future as they are now.

Many of the changes the Abe Cabinet and the LDP have been molding into legislation are, from an international perspective, socially liberal and market-oriented transformations.

Affixing revisionist labels on ambitious economic and social engineering changes could also represent clever political salesmanship on Abe’s part. Many of the changes the Abe Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party have been molding into legislation are, from an international perspective, socially liberal and market-oriented transformations. These would be inimical to the party’s core support among economic and social conservatives, who have taken Mr. Abe’s campaign slogan Nippon o torimodosu (“We Will Take Japan Back”) at face value. By applying a gloss of pre-war Imperial Japan on these programs, Abe is ostensibly shielding them from the automatic rejection they would have received were they presented as liberal or neo-liberal reforms.

A noble reading of the intentions of Mr. Abe and his allies would be that they are plastering a disingenuous pre-1945 “100 Million as One” label on their plans for a post-industrial, post-mercantilist 21st-century democracy in order to sell what would otherwise be unsaleable. However, for that reading to be plausible, the reforms themselves would have to be honest and profound – so much so that it was worthwhile for the government to lie about their true nature in its sale pitch.

THIS IS PRECISELY THE point where the generous view of the Abe administration falls apart. The New Three Arrows of Abenomics – a 600 trillion yen economy by 2020, 1.8 births per woman by 2025 and the zeroing out of persons leaving the workforce to care for an elderly relative (currently over 100,000 workers per year and rising) – are unachievable. Economists and business writers have scoffed at the proposal to increase the nominal GDP 22 percent in five years—though a recent proposed revision of the calculation of GDP figures seems to have lowered the bar.

As for 1.8 births per woman, the last time that happened was back in 1984 – and even that figure was a fluke. One has to go back to 1977, when the marriage, development and labor environments were so different as to be those of another country to get a realistic sustained rate of 1.8 births per Japanese woman. As for the third proposal to zero out the number of job leavers due to eldercare – without the mass immigration of healthcare workers the promise is beyond absurd. The very oldest members of the postwar baby boom generation that dwarfs all its predecessors are not even 70 years of age yet. Many of these boomers indeed are already the stressed-to-the-breaking point caregivers of the relatively tiny generation of their parents. When the boomers themselves become the cared-for rather than the care-giving, the loss of only 100,000 workers a year to eldercare will seem a dream by comparison.

What then are we to make of the “100 Million Making Eye Opening Efforts As One” initiatives? Why go to all the trouble of associating them with the pre-war Japanese imperial state when they are not even realizable? And what kind of modern democratic government has a core policy program whose goals are not just difficult but impossible to achieve?

The answers to these questions may be simple ones. Mr. Abe and his government face a national election in 2016 – far enough in the future that the wide-ranging protests against the security bill and the little sense of any opposition that they seemed to engender will very likely have faded from the public’s memory. If the pure fantasy of these initiatives and their unrealistic goals succeed in stupefying the non-aligned voters into a lethargic state, the ruling coalition may conceivably be able to motivate its base and seize control of both Houses of the Diet, setting the stage for revision of the Constitution – Mr. Abe’s well-known, long-cherished goal. ❶

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