© Jeff Cable Photography
Varying in state
like the Moon!
- Carl Orff, Carmina Burana (1935-36)
Yesterday morning I was seated in the far left side of the Ascot banquet hall of the Hotel Okura. From out of the dark on the far right, avoiding a piece of equipment dropped in his path (the special police had something to say about that afterward) walked in Abe Shinzo, the prime minister of Japan.
Or at least that is what my eyes, my program and everyone around me was telling me.
The man delivered a set speech for fourteen minutes and fifteen seconds, then sat down in an armchair answering questions from the chairman of the day's proceedings for another ten and a half minutes.
I have had Abe Shinzo in my line of sight since October 2005, when I attended a conference on Japan's defense at the hotel nearest the Kantei. Abe, the then Chief Cabinet Secretary, was the keynote mealtime speaker.
The speech then was unimpressive. The phrase best describing its delivery: "still wet behind the ears."
Halfway through Abe seemed to lose himself, using the expression ware-ware ("we" "us") to explain what his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was doing during the build up toward the signing of the revised Security Arrangements between Japan and the United States.
I turned to my tablemate (Dr. Richard Samuels of MIT) with a look on my face of "Did Abe Shinzo just refer to himself as a comrade-in-arms of his grandfather during the Ampo struggle, when he was all of six years old?"
I had Abe Shinzo right in my face every day during his first year as prime minister. I recall the expression of utter, contemptuous boredom on his visage on last day of the Diet session, as he sat on the dais watching vote after railroading vote in the House of Councillors plenary session, the opposition having left the chamber (except for the Communists, who stayed) after the insult of the morning votes -- and the look of his eyes, visible just over the shoulder of a desperate and sweating SP, as he was driven to a specially prepared ward in the Keio University Hospital just seven weeks later. (Link)
I have watched him on a daily basis in the fifteen months since his return to the premiership: struggling to remember his routines, spluttering in Diet interpellations on the simplest of questions, mawkishly flailing his way through some simply embarrassing speeches. (Link)
That man, the Abe Shinzo I know, or thought I knew, did not show up at the Japan Summit 2014.
Someone else did.
The person called Abe Shinzo at the dais and in the armchair yesterday was not Abe Shinzo, grandson of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, grandnephew of Prime Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Sato Eisaku. He was Abe Shinzo, Prime Minister of Japan, President of the Liberal Democratic Party -- pure and simple. When he sat down in the armchair to answer the hard ball questions thrown at him by The Economist's Asia chief Dominic Ziegler, throwing them right back at his interrogator when when answering was not in his interests ("Since what you are asking pertains to what tactics my country will be using [at the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations] I obviously cannot provide details") -- Abe owned that chair like I have never seen any Prime Minister of Japan own a piece of furniture. Not quite a Vladimir Putin slouch -- but Abe still sat in that chair as if he had brought it with him from home.
This was not your "wet behind the ears" botchan, acting out the role of prime minister with the shadow of imposture looming over him. Those who still look at Abe Shinzo that way are living in the past -- and it might as well be the distant past.
Was Abe's astonishing poise, humor and self-confidence all an act?
Maybe. But then he and his handlers should be triply congratulated for having him put on this act in front of not just the domestic and international news media but an overflow crowd of the world's investment community -- at a time when Abenomics in need of a PR boost...and furthermore on the eve of an incredibly important official visit by U.S. president Barack Obama.
If the Abe Shinzo who showed up yesterday meets an Obama delegation believing that he has to ingratiate himself to them, then the Americans are going of find out what the phrase "hitting a brick wall" means.
Failure at the final push for a TPP agreement this weekend? Abe Shinzo will not give a damn -- and nobody around him will either.
Abe's Cabinet is enjoying an insane 60% support rating (latest Kyodo News poll). His party holds the commanding heights in the Diet, the policy debate and the public's imagination. The number of persons answering the question of "Why do you support Prime Minister Abe?" with the plaintive and honest, "Because there is no other suitable person around" is climbing. "Because there is no other suitable person around" is indeed now the most common answer to the question of why voters support the PM, outdistancing the "high expectations for the economy" response (29% of respondents versus 21% again in the latest Kyodo poll).
And now even the Chinese and the South Koreans are trying to make nice. (Link)
Abe Shinzo 2.0, Spring Edition is so comfortable in his own skin he is even letting his beloved hair go, allowing the gray to show.
Changeable like the Moon.
Later - provisional translation of the Prime Minister's speech to The Economist Japan Summit 2014: "Japan towards 2020: time to get started." (Link)
Partial reproduction of photo image of 15 April 2014 "blood moon" by professional photographer Jeff Cable. Click here for the original image and here to read the explanation of how it was created.
Photo image of Abe speaking at the Japan Summit 2014 courtesy JapanRealTime.