How Abe Lost His Groove

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On his band's trip to Tokyo last week, U2 frontman and global do-gooder Bono visited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss Japan's work on development aid. After Abe donned a pair of the rock star's shades, Bono pronounced the new Prime Minister "very cool."

If only the Japanese public agreed. A survey by the Mainichi Shimbun last week found that Abe's popularity had dropped to 53%, down 14 points from when he took power at the end of September. Some deflation was to be expected after his quick start, but the steep dip is feeding the perception that as strong as Abe appears abroad, at home he seems disengaged and clueless about the real concerns of voters. Despite his insistence that Japan has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, Abe seems unwilling or unable to rein in cabinet ministers who keep raising the unpopular issue. While Japanese are panicking over the decay of the educational system, Abe's answer is to push through a bill calling for a more patriotic curriculum. "The public wants education reform, but not anything like Abe is promoting," says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Japanese history at Temple University's Tokyo campus. "This is gesture politics, rather than substance."

Even the gestures seem to be giving the wrong message, as when Abe last week allowed his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to reinstate 11 of 12 members banished last year after voting against former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's postal-reform program. Though they pledged to toe the party line, their readmission sent a signal that the LDP's commitment to reform may be halfhearted. "It will hurt us badly," says Taro Kono, assistant chairman of the LDP's policy-research council. "Abe is seen as a weak leader." At least Bono likes him.