Shinzō Abe tries to get a read on US-Japan alliance
Japan’s PM, Shinzō Abe, was the first foreign leader in the door at Trump Tower in New York this week, in an effort to get an early read of what, if anything, is firmly in the mind of the leader-elect of the Free World.
It’s unlikely that he continued on his way to this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Peru with much certainty that Donald Trump knows what he’s going to do as president. Given the oblique nature of Japanese dialogue, Trump may also have been left wondering what Abe was trying to say.
In Tokyo, where your world editor has been the past couple of weeks, Abe is not regarded as the sharpest knife in the political sushi kitchen, but a presentable frontman for a bunch of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s more nationalist figures, known as the Nippon Kaigi.
He’s also the epitome of the kind of political establishment Trump says he’s against in the United States: son of a powerful LDP faction leader and minister, grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the PM who masterminded Japan’s profitable postwar switch from independent power to American strategic dependent.
Until late in election campaigning, Trump had listed Japan among the allies free-riding on the US defence guarantee. “We’re defending other countries,” Trump said in the third debate. “We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century … We have to renegotiate those agreements.” Earlier he’d also suggested Japan and South Korea should get their own nuclear weapons.
While some in the Nippon Kaigi would welcome the idea of creating a much bigger Japanese military, doing away with constitutional restraints limiting it to self-defence, and even acquiring nuclear capability, even Abe would have to admit the Japanese public is not sold on the notion. He would have stressed to Trump that even though his defence budget is barely 1 per cent of gross domestic product, it achieves formidable capability in areas that complement US power. In addition, Japan is hosting locally unpopular American bases, and picking up three-quarters of the bill.
Trump was already walking away from his campaign words anyway. His surprise election win had South Korean president Park Geun-hye calling an emergency cabinet meeting the next day. After all, Trump had said that “We are better off frankly if South Korea is going to start protecting itself … or they have to pay us.” But when Park telephoned with her congratulations, Trump was all assurance. “We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea,” she reported him saying.
But the biggest worry about Trump in Tokyo is economic. His strong stand against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the contentious 12-nation trade and investment pact, has removed the “third arrow” from Abe’s quiver of policies to jolt the Japanese economy of two decades of weak growth and deflation.
The first two arrows, fiscal stimulus and subzero interest rates, gave a temporary boost. But the signs of a shrinking Japan are everywhere. The population has fallen by a million people in the past five years, to 127 million. At this rate, it will fall to 107 million by mid-century and 83 million by century’s end, according to United Nations figures. The birth rate is 1.4 children for each woman, far below the 2.1 net replacement level. Immigration is negligible. An estimated one in 10 dwellings across Japan is empty. Bears are taking over abandoned farmland. Many of the remaining elderly farmers are too frail to tend the vegetables that are part of the cuisine.
Abe has listed keeping the population above 100 million as a top priority, putting money into child benefits and trying to change work cultures to encourage women to marry young without sacrificing careers. But to help swing the population balance, he needs the third arrow of reforms to shift the economy from its post-1945 export focus to domestic consumption. The TPP included pledges to carry out these reforms, packaged as a strategic initiative to counter the growing influence of China.
So he tried to persuade Trump the TPP was a good idea for the US, opening Japan’s markets to American products and services. Barack Obama has dropped plans to seek TPP ratification in the lame-duck senate session, so it’s all up to Donald.
An unintended consequence of Trump’s win, meanwhile, has been to strengthen Japan as an exporter. Financial market enthusiasm for Trump’s promised tax cuts and fiscal spending has sent the US dollar upwards against the yen. It now looks like being 10 per cent cheaper to buy a Komatsu bulldozer.
Trump is expected to retreat from activity in the Middle East, according to a position paper circulated by Israel’s foreign ministry, and indeed Vladimir Putin was so cheered by his phone call with Trump that he resumed bombing Aleppo the next day.
Across Asia, allies are expecting they’ll be encouraged to do more on their own. But be careful what you wish for, Donald. Abe is getting ready to cosy up to Putin himself, when the Russian leader visits Japan in mid-December, with the aim of getting back a couple of the Kuril Islands Moscow annexed in 1945 and expanding economic ties to the Russian Far East to counter China. To get the islands back, though, he may have to keep them off limits to US forces.
Abe’s old-fashioned nationalists are also trying to expand links with Taiwan, which Japan ruled between 1895 and 1945. Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi (he was adopted by an uncle, a common gesture towards childless siblings) is also an LDP member of the Diet and keen Nippon Kaigi adherent.
He recently made a little-publicised visit to Taipei to see Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, whose election at the head of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party caused Beijing such great displeasure it reduced the flow of mainland tourists to punish Taiwan’s voters in the hip pocket. Beijing’s petulance is Japan’s opportunity, it seems.
Australia’s old hands in Japan may be cheered to know that an Australian bloodline is now part of the LDP caucus in the Diet, with the byelection victory of Jirō Hatoyama last month to take over the Fukuoka seat of his father, Kunio Hatoyama, who died in June.
Jirō’s mother is the former Emily Beard, daughter of an Australian soldier in the postwar occupation of Japan, Sergeant Jimmy Beard. Emily grew into a famous beauty in the 1960s when hafu (mixed race) looks became the modelling and advertising rage, and won the heart of Kunio Hatoyama, whose father had been foreign minister in the 1970s and grandfather the prime minister in the 1950s. Kunio’s older brother Yukio became PM in 2009-10 at the head of an opposition party. So it was a top-drawer marriage, into money as well, since the mother of the Hatoyama brothers is an heir to the Ishibashi (Bridgestone) tyre fortune.
Jimmy Beard stayed on in Japan, doing well in the cargo superintendence business. But the Australian writer Hal Porter, who had taught at the school for Australian occupation force families, did him a nasty turn in his short story “Mr Butterfry” – using him as identifiable model for a foreign man disowned and shunned by his family once Japan recovered.
There is no evidence this happened to Beard, and your editor was in the Foreign Correspondents Club bar in the 1980s when Beard accosted Porter and called him a “bastard” for accepting and abusing his family’s hospitality.
Film note. When Ronald Reagan became president, much fun was had with his cinematic oeuvre, which included Bedtime for Bonzo, in which a chimpanzee was co-star. Now a spy has alerted me to the 1989 film Ghosts Can’t Do It in which Donald Trump has a cameo role.
Filmed in the US, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, it’s the tale of an older man (Anthony Quinn) who despairs at not being able to make love to his much younger wife (Bo Derek). He suicides and comes back as a ghost, but obviously needs a body to do the deed so sets out to acquire one.
It bombed, and tied for Worst Picture and won Worst Actress (Derek) awards at the Golden Raspberry Awards. Even though he was playing himself, Trump got the Worst Supporting Actor Razzie.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "Abe tries to get a read on US-Japan alliance". Subscribe here.