He started his term in office offering a fresh new start—a forceful young nationalist and the first Japanese prime minister to be born after the second world war. It all ended last week with Shinzo Abe looking very much like a broken man, his eyes welling with tears as he gave his farewell speech before checking into a hospital for "exhaustion." Though dogged by a string of cabinet scandals and political missteps, the issue that brought him down in the end was his support for America in the new world war, the one on terror.
Ironic, given that Abe had built his political reputation, and early popularity, on hawkish and pro-American policies. Now he has joined the ranks of colleagues including Spain's José María Aznar, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Tony Blair, who found themselves pushed out of power when their support for America's wars lost traction with their own countrymen. Others, from Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf to Australia's John Howard, face rising popular discontent over their ties to George W. Bush, but still hold their jobs. Abe was the first to fall in Asia for his friendship with Bush.
Not that the Japanese are suddenly turning against their old ally. They remain very pro-American, polls show. But they are revolting, in the European way, against Bush's priorities—the War on Terror and its battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are distancing themselves from playing a military role.
In polls the Japanese routinely express approval of their half-century-old alliance with the United States, despite lingering irritation over the stationing of American forces on Japanese territory and the vast sums Tokyo pays to keep them there. But in recent months, ordinary Japanese have grown weary of Abe's ambition to restore Japanese stature by, for example, easing restrictions in the pacifist postwar Constitution on sending Japanese troops abroad. Washington, eager for more Japanese support in places like Iraq, fully supported the constitutional revision. But Japanese voters wanted Abe to focus on problems at home: endangered pensions, widening social inequality and shaky health care.
By the end, Abe had simply drifted too close to the Bush worldview, in which the War on Terror is priority No. 1. Following a meeting with Bush during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Sydney, Abe vowed in public to stake his office on a controversial law enabling Japanese forces to provide logistical support to America and its allies in the war in Afghanistan. Three days later, he was blaming his surprise decision to resign on the intransigence of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which refused to back him up. But it was Abe who left sounding intransigent as he insisted that "Japan must continue its fight against terrorism under a new prime minister."
Yet it need not—at least, not like Abe had. Abe simply wasn't listening to a public that had turned on even limited Japanese support for the war. The law in question allowed Japanese ships stationed in the Indian Ocean to fuel American and allied vessels involved with the war in Afghanistan. Abe's popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, pushed it through Parliament in 2001 as part of his show of support for America after 9/11. No one questioned it until Abe's dramatic slide in popularity in recent months made him vulnerable on the issue. In watershed July elections, the opposition DPJ gained a majority in the upper house of Parliament, and soon DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa was warning that he would derail plans to extend the law.
Suddenly, many voices were questioning Japan's overseas deployments. Most Japanese still favor the alliance with the United States, even as recent polls by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper show that up to 53 percent of the population oppose the Indian Ocean refueling. (Japan had also sent a contingent of troops to Iraq, but most were withdrawn before Abe came to office.) When asked whether the remaining Japanese Air Force troops in Iraq should be kept there, 69 percent said "no." Kenji Eda, an independent member of Parliament who is also working to block the law that permits the Indian Ocean deployment, is surprised by the intensity of support for his position. Surprised, he says, because people tend to support the alliance.
Something is changing. Under Koizumi, discussion of Japan's participation in the global War on Terror never reached a critical stage. Now the mounting discontent could form into a backlash. Public enthusiasm for Abe's plans to ease constitutional limits on the military has cooled noticeably. A blue- ribbon commission appointed by Abe to study the possibility of giving Tokyo greater latitude to deploy troops in operations with its American allies has essentially run out of steam. "It's too big a tilt," says MIT professor Richard Samuels. "It's carrying America's water for them and nobody's in the mood for that right now." As in Europe, Japanese want their leader to put their own issues first.
Just how much damage this does to the broader U.S.-Japanese relationship remains to be seen. Whoever succeeds Abe as his party's leader will face pressure to call a general election, setting up a campaign in which Ozawa will likely play the antiwar card for all it's worth. "How he plays it and how the Americans play it is very important," says Gerald Curtis, a Japan expert at Columbia University. "If it looks like the Americans are trying to push the Japanese around and tell the Japanese how to run their foreign policy, Ozawa benefits." Kuni Miyake, a former diplomat and president of the AOI Foreign Policy Institute in Tokyo, says of the two feuding political parties: "Both sides have passed the point of no return. It's a game of chicken. Probably there will be a collision." It is hoped Japan's friendship with the United States will survive intact. But future prime ministers, like colleagues around the world, are likely to avoid spending too much time in Bush's company.