apanís prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is
feeling quite confident, having recently sought a new electoral mandate and received it midway through his parliamentary term. Not that he did anything remarkable or even hopeful for his country plagued with multiple problems, but he exuded confidence and a can do spirit to pull Japan out of its prolonged morass. For instance, he came to power after Japan was still in the throes of the 2011 tsunami that killed and swept away thousands of Japanese and crippled its nuclear energy sector by disabling the Fukushima nuclear power plants. Apart from massive human and property losses, the shut down of Japanís nuclear power complex massively increased Japanís oil import bill. The then ruling Democratic Party of Japan was blamed for mismanaging this unprecedented crisis. The brief interlude of the Democratic Party of Japan, which won a landside victory in 2009 with great expectations, was an abject failure that brought back the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power with Shinzo Abe as the countryís new prime minister in 2012. People looked to him for solutions and he promised to transform the country in all sorts of ways. But not much was achieved during his two years and his government has come under criticism. To stem the tide of such criticism developing a momentum of its own, Abe decided to pre-emptively seek a popular mandate midway through his term and give himself extended time to hopefully change things in some recognisable ways.

Will he be able to do it? Japanís biggest problem is that its economy has been stagnant and has entered a deflationary phase over the last two decades. So far, during two years with Abe as prime minister there has not been any appreciable improvement. His government has sought to put Japan on a growth trajectory by easing monetary policy and through increased public spending, even if that means a further increase in the countryís already enormous debt, much of it raised internally. The idea behind easy money supply is to make credit cheaper and easily available for businesses to grow, create new jobs, and build consumer confidence so that people start spending more, thus creating a virtuous cycle of forward economic movement. However, despite some initial kick off from the new policies, it has not made any appreciable difference to the countryís economic environment. The government believes that it needs more time for its policies to work and the new extended term will enable them to produce results. During this period, the Abe government might also open up the Japanese economy to foreign investments and liberalise trade barriers in restricted sectors like agriculture. It must, however, be said that any structural change to the economy will run into strong opposition from the agricultural sector that also happens to be the ruling LDPís power base.

Apart from reinvigorating the countryís economy, the ruling LDP has a very strong nationalist agenda, which includes making Japan into a Ďnormalí nation. This means scrapping/amending Japanís pacifist constitution, allowing it to function like any sovereign country able to use its defence forces to take on an enemy and/or come to the aid of its friends and allies. Under Abe, Japan has increased its defence expenditure. It has also sought to do some creative interpretation of its pacifist constitution to make it more responsive to external challenges.

The most compelling factor driving this is the perceived threat from a resurgent China. With his renewed electoral mandate, the Abe government is expected to take this process of nationalist revival further. And as part of this process, the government is likely to become more unapologetic about its wartime atrocities, indeed whitewashing or denying their occurrence. This is likely to accentuate problems with China, on top of the sovereignty dispute over islands in the East China Sea. It is important to point out here that although many Japanese are worried about a perceived security threat from China, they do not necessarily agree with Prime Minister Abeís attempts to tinker with and/or amend Japanís pacifist constitution. Ever since the end of World War Two leading to Japanís defeat, the country has developed a strong tradition of pacifism in terms of abjuring another war.

Another area where Abe might be swimming against strong opposition from many of his countrymen is his policy to re-start the countryís many nuclear power reactors. The Japanese still have fresh memories of the Fukushima disaster of nuclear meltdown at some of its plants, with neighbouring areas turning into ghost towns. Japan was gripped with fear and there was talk then that even Tokyo might be affected. This is still fresh in many peopleís memories and they are allergic to any talk of restarting the nuclear industry. But buoyed by his renewed electoral victory, Prime Minister Abe will go ahead with restarting the countryís nuclear industry.

How is he getting away with it when many Japanese are not supportive of some of his important policy initiatives? His economic policies have not really worked to create confidence among people to start spending and lift the country out of its long deflationary phase. Many Japanese oppose his revamping of the countryís pacifist constitution. And people are not particularly enthused about whitewashing the countryís wartime record. At the same time, there is significant opposition to restarting the nuclear industry.

There are two important reasons for this. The first is the long time familiarity of the Japanese people with the ruling LDP that has been in power for a long time except brief interruption by the opposition. And the last time the opposition Democratic Party was in power, it made a hash of things comprehensively. Much was expected and it failed miserably creating conditions for the return to power of the LDP in 2012, now re-elected midway through the normal parliamentary cycle. The opposition was fragmented and unelectable. In other words, the renewed mandate for Abe and his LDP is not essentially an endorsement of its policies but a lack of any credible political alternative.

The second reason is that even though the Abe-led governmentís strong nationalism, sometimes bordering on jingoism as with denying its wartime crimes, is worrisome, there is general unease among Japanese people with Chinaís own muscular nationalism that reflects an attitude of righting the wrongs of history as Beijing sees it. The Abe government provides a counter narrative and way of confronting China, if need be. And part of this narrative, apart from strengthening Japanís defence posture, is further strengthening its US alliance and building regional linkages against Chinaís expansive nationalism. The Japanese might not like what is happening but they sense a need to do something to prepare if China were to turn its attention towards Japan. All this is dangerous stuff based on calculations of balance of power, which can go awry as it did in World War One and led to catastrophic results.