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In Japan, Shinzo Abe's Replacement Faces Daunting Challenges

2020-08-29 13:20:25
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TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is leaving office a year early with no obvious successor. But whoever ultimately emerges from the fierce jockeying within his party will face a clear set of monumental challenges.

The coronavirus, although relatively contained now, could yet rage out of control. The Japanese economy, the world’s third largest, has taken a historic nosedive. Chinese military aggression is rising in the region. Decisions must be made about whether the postponed Tokyo Olympics can actually be held next summer. A hugely contentious presidential election in the United States, Japan’s closest ally, is a little more than two months away.

And those are just the present dangers.

In the longer term, Japan’s next leader faces the unfinished business of Mr. 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.

Those who have already announced their desire to stand for the prime ministership 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 Mr. Abe for party leader; Seiko Noda, a member of the lower house of Parliament; and Tomomi Inada, another former defense minister.

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?” Ms. 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,’” Ms. Holthus said. “If I were prime minister, I would have said, ‘We have to stay with this.’”

While two women, Ms. Noda and Ms. Inada, have thrown their hats in the ring, the possibility of a female prime minister remains remote. Just three of Mr. Abe’s 20 cabinet members are women, and Japan is 165th in a United Nations 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 the prime ministership 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 Mr. 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?’” Ms. Smith said.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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