World Leaders Forum: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Amidst the crowd-wide clicking and fumbling of clunky translation devices, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke to a silent, eagerly anticipatory audience crammed with students and members of the press on September 22, 2014. Between the opening remarks of President Bollinger, student questions, and Prime Minister Abe’s responses, it was a night filled with “re's": a renewed sense of nationality, a resurgence of economic growth, a reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution, and a re-imagining of Japanese military potential. And although there was great focus on the future and the changes needed to get there, another, potentially detrimental trend emerged: a nostalgic yearning for the past, a “re”turn to previous successes, the glory days.
Prime Minister Abe characterized his economic policies as the means to return Japan to the economic stature it enjoyed before the “Lost Decade.” The Lost Decade of the 1990s (which sometimes includes the first decade of the 2000s) describes the economic period when growth fell dramatically following the decades-long, sustained period of economic success brought about by post-war reconstruction. In this time period, Japan's price bubble exploded, deflation was rapid, and GDP fell from $5.33 to $4.36 trillion. Young people who came of age during the “Lost Decade” struggled to find jobs and to acquire the right skills demanded by a global economy.
Prime Minister Abe’s economic policies, known popularly as “Abenomics,” are worth noting for their uniqueness and tentative success. Prime Minister Abe is head of the Liberal Democratic Party, the right-of-center political party of Japan, which makes Abenomics, based on a liberal Keynesian form of economics that prescribes robust stimulus (Abe mentioned in his remarks the 2020 Olympics to be held in Japan as a new reference point for a potential boom in the construction sector) and the lowering of interest rates, all the more fascinating. This economic school of thinking consists of three arrows: fiscal, monetary, and structural reform. At the World Leaders Forum, Prime Minister Abe referenced an article he had written in the Wall Street Journal on September 18th in which he describes the successes of his policies, including reductions in unemployment and regulations, and gains in wages and payroll. The article also addresses future action on the most difficult arrow, structural reform, which consists of implicit and explicit reductions in market-distorting subsidies, such as those paid to rice farmers.
While Prime Minister Abe referenced many new initiatives that he would work to implement over the coming decade—investment in robotics, youth exchange programs, renewable energy, daycare programs for working women—he did not, unsurprisingly, speak at length about the two “hot-topic” issues on most people’s minds: Sino-Japanese relations and the remilitarization of Japan. Rather than delve into the controversial political or global relationships surrounding both issues, Prime Minister Abe stressed Japan’s proactivity, mentioning that Japan would move away from a restraint-based foreign policy and that the country would aim to protect peace in the region.
Although the lack of discussion on hot-button issues was palpably disappointing to the audience, Prime Minister Abe appropriately and emotionally addressed the US-Japan relationship and alliance, starting with the historic connection between Columbia and Japan. Abe began his address with an acknowledgement of Low Library, named after Columbia President Seth Low, whose father, Abiel Abbot Low, was one of the top traders of silk and tea with Japan during the 19th century. Zooming outward, Prime Minister Abe documented the intellectual and human exchange that Japan and the United States have experienced together, as students and businesses compete and work closely together in an interconnected economy. Furthermore, in regard to President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” relations with Japan become all the more important.
Prime Minister Abe’s speech began and ended with thunderous applause. While many in the audience seemed disappointed that Abe did not more thoroughly address the relationship with China or remilitarization, I was struck by Abe’s recurrent backwards glance. While Japan can and should learn from its “glory days” of booming economic growth and thriving businesses, constantly looking back to the past will not help the country create a new and prosperous future. Prime Minister Abe seemed to have one foot in the past and one in the future. Japan, however, needs all the even footing it can get.