Abe, learning from last stint as prime minister, is quick to get down to work

January 27, 2013


Shinzo Abe, mindful of the need to hit the ground running in his second shot as prime minister, wasted no time in putting together a massive economic stimulation package.

He needed no reminding of the many bitter lessons he had grappled with when he last held the job.

After Abe abruptly announced his resignation as prime minister in September 2007, after serving just two weeks shy of a year in office, he feared the public would never again accept him in a top leadership role, especially with criticism that he had simply abandoned his duties.

Abe at the time was faced with dismal public approval ratings. His decision to quit ushered in a string of prime ministers who did not survive for more than one year.

Abe, now 58, was then Japan's youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II.

In a notebook, he jotted down a list of things he thought he could have done better, as well as other lessons learned on the job.

One close associate said, "While I have never read the notebook, it appears that the prime minister has gone back to read over it on occasion."

When Abe formed his Cabinet on Dec. 26, he was determined that his administration would make a speedy start, especially on resuscitating the moribund economy.

The urgency felt by Abe was evident to Yasushi Manago, the vice finance minister, who was summoned to the prime minister's office earlier this month to discuss budget matters.

Abe told Manago, "You absolutely have to come up with something that exceeds 10 trillion yen ($110 billion)."

Abe had made reviving the economy his immediate priority, vowing to implement a bold monetary policy, flexible fiscal policy and solid growth strategy.

To achieve that, he needed to come up with a supplementary budget to implement emergency economic measures. However, the Finance Ministry was dead set against a huge fiscal spending package.

Abe instructed Manago, "It will be unacceptable unless the budget is of a scale that has an impact capable of changing public sentiment."

By the time the Abe Cabinet approved the supplementary budget on Jan. 15 it had included 10.3 trillion yen in economic stimulus measures.

Abe's next target was the Bank of Japan.

BOJ mandarins were initially reluctant to go along with the government's policy of setting a 2-percent inflation rate target. Central bank officials tried to hold out for a more vague time frame, hoping the target could be achieved in the medium to long term.

However, Abe said, "Unlike the BOJ governor who is protected by a five-year term, we politicians have to face voters in the election."

A joint statement released Jan. 22 by the central government and the BOJ called for achieving the inflation target as soon as possible.

Soon after Abe took office in December, he told close associates: "We will have no time to prepare or for a test run. We must hit the ground running."

The notebook that Abe kept close to hand helped him to decide personnel selections for his Cabinet and the prime minister's office.

One close aide said, "The prime minister gave careful thought to the lineup so as to achieve a quick start in economic policy."

In his first turn as prime minister, Abe chose friends to posts near to him and that led to a struggle for the political upper hand. This time, Abe's picks shared in the objective of cobbling together an economic package that money markets would take note of.

Abe chose Taro Aso as finance minister and state minister in charge of financial services because Aso served as prime minister when the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Akira Amari was named state minister in charge of economic rebirth because of his experience in compiling a growth strategy for the Liberal Democratic Party.

Many of those chosen to work in the prime minister's office had previous experience working there.

One aide said, "Because everyone knew what to do, they were able to get immediately to work."

After the Abe administration in rapid-fire succession compiled the supplementary budget, convinced the BOJ to pledge greater monetary easing measures and began work in creating a new growth strategy, financial markets responded with higher stock prices and a weaker yen.

At the same time, there were some blind spots for the Abe administration.

On Jan. 23, the LDP decided to restrict the use of motor vehicle taxes to road construction. However, that led to criticism of a return to the old LDP ways of governing.

To make matters worse, those close to Abe were unable to actively engage in discussions within the LDP because they had their hands full dealing with the hostage crisis in Algeria.

When Abe was told of the LDP proposal, he angrily said, "How are we to respond to questions in the Diet about this?"

While that eventually led to the LDP decision to allow motor vehicle tax revenues to be used more generally, the incident also highlighted problems of communications among key party officials.

Abe told his aides, "When I am in the prime minister's office, I am unable to read the mood of the party."

Abe also used lessons from his notebook to deal with the hostage crisis.

He first heard about the incident in Vietnam while on his first overseas tour since becoming prime minister. He called Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and said, "What is important in crisis management is to provide the mass media with information at the appropriate time. If there is a lack of information, there is the possibility of that leading to criticism of the government."

Abe told Suga to hold news conferences even if it was late in the day.

Abe also confided to aides that he was helped in his handling of the hostage crisis by his experience while serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary in 2001 when the USS Greeneville, a nuclear-powered submarine, surfaced rapidly and collided with the Ehime Maru, a training ship from Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture, leaving nine dead from the Japanese ship.

He also cited an incident in which a North Korean boat blew itself up rather than be taken in Japanese territorial waters.

Abe has also attempted new ways to reach out to the public, in part because of a view that one factor behind the failure of his first stint as prime minister was a confrontational attitude toward the media.

The prime minister's office has opened a Facebook account that allows for free exchange of messages through use of the "Line" application.

In the Jan. 26 entry, Abe reflected on his first month back in office and wrote, "I feel as though I have been riding on a rocket every day. While this is the second time, I have become painfully aware of what a difficult job being prime minister is."

At the same time, Abe has not responded to the informal banter with beat reporters that had been the traditional practice in the past.

One associate said, "The prime minister should confine himself to conveying the larger message. There should be a division of roles with the chief Cabinet secretary announcing the specific details and responding to reporters' questions."

There were also signs that Abe is planning to remaining in office for the long haul this time around.

Early on Jan. 25, he sent a message to the World Economic Forum meeting held in Davos, Switzerland, in which he said that having accomplished a comeback, he was not about to leave the political stage anytime soon.

One associate said, "The prime minister feels that a long time in office is vital if he is to implement everything he feels he has to do."

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets reporters before entering his office on Jan. 26. (Mari Endo)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets reporters before entering his office on Jan. 26. (Mari Endo)

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets reporters before entering his office on Jan. 26. (Mari Endo)

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