This Friday, President Obama will welcome recently elected Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to the White House. Abe will be the first major foreign dignitary to visit Mr. Obama in his second term — but it will not be his first trip to the Oval Office. In April of 2007, during the first of Abe’s two non-contiguous terms in office, he called on President George W. Bush.
When he arrived in D.C. in 2007, Abe surprised observers back home by the simple act of walking from the plane hand-in-hand with First Lady Akie. That made something of a splash in historically male-dominated Japan, where politicians’ wives are typically expected to step back and “behave,” as it were.
But that simple act spoke volumes about Abe and revealed traits that are often overlooked in the American press. With amazing consistency, U.S. media have portrayed Abe as a fringe character — typically, as a “hawk” unsuited to pacifist Japan. Yet this supposedly “out-of-step” politician won an electoral landslide in December and enjoys a 71 percent approval rating today.
How can this be?
Most outside observers have missed that Japan is undergoing a generational shift that no one exemplifies more than Abe.
Abe was originally elected in 2006, the first Japanese prime minister to have been born after World War II. Born in 1954, he even missed the Occupied Japan era.
Just as America had its Baby Boomer generation, Japan had its “Dankai,” a post-war cohort whose members’ lives differed much from those of their parents. They grew up amid the widespread poverty that immediately followed World War II, citizens of a defeated nation.
Those conditions spawned a generation of pacifists — some so anti-war that they opposed even the formation of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Some became anti-American, sympathetic with socialism rather than capitalism, eager to forge stronger ties with Beijing and Moscow. This mindset reached its peak in the 1970s, with widespread anti-military demonstrations and opposition to the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The Dankai had a transformative effect on Japan, economically as well as culturally. As workers, they ushered in an era of rapid economic growth. Culturally, they turned their eyes to the West. They danced to Elvis and the Beatles. They traded conservative fashion for jeans and miniskirts. Many of the old traditions, such as arranged marriages, started to fade away.
Now the Dankai are fading away. Scores of politicians from that generation went down in defeat in last December’s elections. In the private sector, many are now retiring voluntarily. The next generation is taking over, and Abe is its standard bearer.
Abe’s views differ sharply from those of the earlier generation. He wants to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and enhance his country’s military capabilities. This arises not from “hawkishness,” but from the great sense of confidence that characterizes the generation of Japanese forty- and fiftysomethings now taking the reins of power.
I call this generation the High Flyers. Their formative years came at the height of Japan’s economic boom — a period that lasted from the 1960s until the bubble burst in the ’90s. These men and women had no experience with the cruelty of war and its aftermath of poverty and confusion. Rather, they tend toward optimism and an expansive, global view.
As High Flyers grew up, GDP rose almost 10 percent annually. By the time they graduated from college, the yen was a floating currency, no longer fixed to the dollar. At that time, post-graduate employment was at a high, and interest in traveling abroad increased.
Their economic prosperity and the confidence it’s inspired has fortified a new sense of Japanese identity. While maintaining the traditional patriotism of their forebears, they have embraced democracy, human rights, and free markets, encouraging a strong alliance with the U.S.
Prime Minister Abe is the voice of this generation. That is why he so roundly condemned the successful nuclear test by North Korea last week. That is why he insisted that China apologize for locking weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese warship and promise that it would not do so again. Politicians of the Dankai generation would have eschewed such responses as too “hawkish.” But for Abe’s generation, confrontation is not synonymous with belligerence. Rather, it is a sign of confidence and realism.
This bodes well for a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship and thus for global stability. Abe has already changed his attitude toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Asian nations that President Obama strongly supports. Abe also wants to change the Japanese constitution to allow his country greater military capabilities abroad. Mr. Obama should welcome the prospect of a more robust Asian partner as he “pivots” to the region, especially when he is also implementing steep cuts to America’s defense budget.
He and Mr. Abe should have plenty to talk about.
— Kumi Yokoe is a senior visiting fellow of the Heritage Foundation and one of Japan’s leading authorities on the United States.