TOKYO — The Japanese economy has taken a historic nosedive. The coronavirus could yet rage out of control and force a second postponement of the Olympics. Chinese military aggression is rising in the region just as America, Japan’s closest ally, is embroiled in a polarizing presidential election.
And those are just the immediate challenges for the politicians jockeying fiercely to replace Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is leaving office a year early with no obvious successor.
In the longer term, Japan’s next leader faces the unfinished business of Abe’s promises to advance women in politics and the workplace, and to improve working conditions so that men can help more at home.
The country is confronting labor shortages as it grapples with a shrinking population and a stubbornly low birthrate, as well as snags in bringing in foreign workers. With the highest proportion of elderly people in the world, Japan could soon struggle to meet pension obligations and provide health care to the aging public.
Not to mention natural disasters turbocharged by climate change, Japan’s energy vulnerabilities from its post-Fukushima nuclear shutdown, the threat of missile attacks by North Korea, and a low ebb in relations with South Korea.
“It makes me wonder why anybody would want to be prime minister,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an analyst at the RAND Corp.
But there is no shortage of aspirants. Abe’s conservative party, the Liberal Democratic Party, will announce on Tuesday whether it will call an extraordinary election limited to its members of Parliament and a few prefectural representatives, or a vote that would involve all the party’s 1 million members. (For the opposition to field a prospective leader, there would need to be a general election.)
Those who have already announced their desire to stand for prime minister include Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister; Toshimitsu Motegi, the current foreign minister; Taro Kono, the defense minister; Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who once ran against Abe for party leader; Seiko Noda, a member of the lower house of Parliament; and Tomomi Inada, another former defense minister.
The eventual successor to Abe, who cited ill health in announcing his resignation Friday, will confront the many challenges without having the stature he had built over a record-setting run of nearly eight years.
Fundamentally, Japan remains an orderly and prosperous nation. Still, its longer-term issues are so deeply entrenched that not even Abe’s long tenure was sufficient to remedy them. By his own reckoning, his biggest regrets were that he failed to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution and so “normalize” its military, to secure the return of contested islands from Russia or to resolve the fates of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea decades ago.
For now, the most pressing priority for the next prime minister will be restoring the economy, battered by a worldwide pandemic-related downturn. Japan already has the biggest debt load in the developed world relative to the size of its economy and has spent heavily to stimulate economic activity.
“This is such a heavy lift even before you get to structural change and demographics or any of these larger Japan-specific problems,” said Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Still, the pandemic could present an opportunity for the next leader to encourage social reforms that could address some deep-rooted problems, including obstacles that make it difficult for women to progress in careers while having families.
During a state of emergency this spring, the government urged companies to allow employees to work from home, but an analog, paper-based office culture hampered many people. Recent surveys show that only about one out of five employees have continued working from home.
Kathy Matsui, chief Japan equity strategist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo, said she hoped the next prime minister would propose a rigorous digital strategy for the government and urge companies to adopt more advanced technology.
“Demographics are challenged, so how are you going to boost productivity without investing in a very clear IT transformation strategy?” Matsui said. “We absolutely need a productivity revolution in the not-so-distant future, so turning this pinch into a change for digital transformation” is crucially important.
Technology that enables more people to work from home could also help women, said Barbara G. Holthus, deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo. She said she wished that a new leader would remind companies and employees that teleworking could help not only to contain the coronavirus but also to empower working mothers in particular.
“To have people all of a sudden be able to work from home, when it’s always been said that it’s not possible — I thought, ‘OK, now, we’re finally going to have a trend which allows women to work from home and throw in a load of laundry while working in front of their computer,’” Holthus said. “If I were prime minister, I would have said, ‘We have to stay with this.’”
While two women, Noda and Inada, have thrown their hats in the ring, the possibility of a female prime minister remains remote. Just three of Abe’s 20 Cabinet members are women, and Japan is 165th in a U.N. ranking of countries based on female representation in Parliament.
On the international stage, one of the largest concerns for Japan is whether any of the contenders for prime minister can hold on to power long enough to get beyond a short-term agenda. Both within Japan and internationally, the fear is that the country might return to the revolving-door political leadership that plagued it for years before Abe began his second stint in office in 2012.
“Even in Washington, you can hear ‘Oh my God, are we going back to one prime minister a year?’” Smith said.
Abe had the time to develop diplomatic relationships that had eluded the country during the period of high turnover. That ultimately allowed him to nudge Japan’s allies into trade deals and security partnerships.
“One of the assets he had was he wasn’t the new face in the summit photo op for presidents and prime ministers” at international gatherings, said Takako Hikotani, associate professor of political science at Columbia University. “That meant a lot.”
With the coming U.S. presidential election, a new Japanese leader will have to skillfully manage relations with a long-term ally that has lately been stepping back from its leadership role on the international stage.
Under Abe, Japan “filled some of the vacuum left by the United States in its reluctance to remain a considerable Pacific power,” said Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. She said she wasn’t sure if any of his likely successors would be able to assume the mantle of multilateral leadership in the region.
In recent years, Japan has sought to act as a counterbalance to the rising aggression of China, which has carried out provocative maritime activities in both the East and South China Seas and cracked down on Hong Kong.
But if Abe’s exit ushers in political instability, “China has shown that it takes advantage of situations and uncertainty,” Hornung, the RAND analyst, said.
“If you have somebody that they see as weak or green in the teeth or not very capable, we might see China step it up in a way that Japan hasn’t experienced for a while,” he added.
Analysts said they hoped that the next Japanese prime minister would take steps to resolve the strained relationship with South Korea, which stems from a fight over what Japan still owes its neighbor for abuses committed during its colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II.
The longer the dispute goes on, with protracted court fights and trade battles, “the only winners are China and North Korea, who benefit from weakened alliances with others in the region,” said Lauren Richardson, a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University.
“Both Japan and South Korea have an interest in maintaining the liberal rules-based order in the region, and China is pushing back hard against that. But there’s no way Japan or South Korea can push back on their own,” she said, especially with “a weakened U.S. posture” in the region while the United States is preoccupied with a presidential election and the devastating effects of the coronavirus.