Shinzo Abe is one of Japan's most polarizing prime ministers in decades. He may also have a good shot at becoming that rarity in Japanese politics – a long-serving leader.
Whether that proves to be the case depends on whether Abe, who surged back to power 20 months ago for a second shot at Japan's top job, can temper his conservative ideology with pragmatism and keep his pledges to end two decades of economic stagnation.
Abe's first term ended when, suffering ill health and facing political deadlock, he quit in 2007 after one troubled year. His focus then was on a controversial agenda that included turning the page on Japan's wartime past and easing the limits of the pacifist constitution. That agenda failed to resonate with voters worried about jobs and pensions.
This time, aides are seeking to soften Abe's image as an ideologue and convince foreign investors and domestic voters his top priority remains reviving the economy. Abe's inner circle is well aware that success hinges on keeping that balance, interviews with dozens of aides, advisers and allies show.
"Mr Abe himself understands well what he must do as prime minister - and that is not simply to forge ahead with his own agenda," said a senior ruling coalition lawmaker.
Abe's support rates have rebounded to just over 50 percent after slipping below that level last month, after the cabinet eased some of the pacifist constitution's limits on the military. Any fresh declines could erode his ability to tackle tough reforms many say are needed to engineer growth for Japan's aging and shrinking population. Abe faces several hurdles in the coming months.
He is expected to reshuffle the cabinet in early September, although core members of his team – including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a veteran of his first term – are set to stay on. He must also decide whether to go ahead with raising the sales tax to 10 percent next year, and faces a string of local elections. Navigating those political shoals with his popularity intact will be key to victory in a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership race a year from now, which Abe needs to win to gain a second three-year term until 2018.
No one who knows Abe thinks he has abandoned his conservative agenda. But he and his aides stress his top focus is the economy, which has been jolted by last April's sales tax hike to 8 percent. Last quarter, the economy suffered its biggest contraction since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"It is the economy that is the well-spring of energy for society," Abe wrote in an article published in the monthly Bungei Shunju magazine. But he added: "Security and the economy are not matters of a different order, and in reality, it could be said that they are … two sides of the same coin."
Less is more
Abe has sought to temper his image as a security hawk whom critics accuse of gutting Japan's pacifist constitution, as he pushes to ease the limits imposed on the military by the U.S.-drafted charter's war-renouncing Article 9.
On July 1, his cabinet adopted a resolution reinterpreting the constitution to drop a ban on collective self-defense, or aiding a friendly country under attack. The decision to drop the ban, which has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945, marked a historic change in Japan's security policy.
It also fulfilled a cherished goal for Abe, who inherited much of his conservative agenda from his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a prewar cabinet minister who was jailed but never tried as a war-crimes suspect. Kishi became premier in 1957, but had to resign three years later after ramming a U.S.-Japan Security Treaty through parliament despite mass public protests.
In a classical Chinese-style poem written by hand with ink and brush and presented to Abe privately, Hisahiko Okazaki, a former diplomat and long-time Abe confidant summed up what the policy shift meant for those who shared Abe's world view.
"Unprecedented defeat destroyed our spirit. To whom should we entrust the security of the people? Three generations of patriots. Finally, collective self-defense. Justice," he wrote.
Although Abe was determined to achieve the goal that eluded him in 2006-2007, he also demonstrated early on a willingness to compromise on the security issue to get a deal with the LDP's junior coalition partner, the more dovish New Komeito.
Insiders said the stage for compromise was set months before the deal was clinched, when LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura floated the idea of allowing a "limited" exercise of collective self-defense.
"Basically, the prime minister wanted to do everything, but once Mr Komura came up with the concept of 'limited' (change), we realized that this was pretty close to the New Komeito's thinking and in that context the prime minister made the final decision," said a government official close to Abe.
After receiving proposals from his security advisers, Abe at a May 15 news conference ruled out sending Japanese troops to fight with like-minded nations in far-flung military operations such as the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq. "He narrowed the scope, saying there would not be a 'full model change'," the coalition lawmaker said.