Just two months into office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing an increasing willingness to take on some pillars of Japan's establishment — the central bank and the country's politically influential farmers — in an aggressive attempt to finally breathe some new life into Japan's listless economy.
Mr. Abe has already forced the departure of the cautious head of the central Bank of Japan and nominated a replacement who vowed Monday to do "whatever it takes" to fight crippling deflation that has eroded profits and wages and stifled spending.
Mr. Abe is also expected to announce soon that his nation will join negotiations on an American-led Pacific free-trade pact that the Obama administration hopes will offset China's growing economic and political might, but that could also force Japan to make painful, market-opening changes it has resisted for nearly two decades.
Joining the pact risks alienating farmers, longtime staunch supporters of Mr. Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party, who would face more intense competition from cheaper imports.
But the broader public appears more willing to embrace drastic economic measures at a time when Japan, the region's waning economic superpower, feels threatened by China, helping push Mr. Abe's approval ratings to around 70 percent in recent polls. That is a vast improvement from his disastrous first term in office six years ago, and from concerns that his hawkish views might alienate him once again from voters.
"The future of Japan's economic growth depends on us having the willpower and the courage to sail without hesitation onto the rough seas of global competition," Mr. Abe declared in a speech to Parliament last Thursday.
Critics warn that his stimulus measures, including a new wave of public works projects, could increase Japan's already crushing public debt, or set off a currency war as the prospect of drastic easing by the central bank has caused the yen's value to plummet.
They also worry that Mr. Abe's effort to combat deflation could include radical steps that they warn could disturb global financial markets by unleashing a flood of Japanese money into developing economies, causing dangerous, speculative bubbles.
The many economists who support Mr. Abe's plans, however, have a different warning: that any economic benefits could prove short-lived unless they are accompanied by a longer-term growth strategy.
The trade pact, they say, will be a good litmus test of Mr. Abe's willingness to force such deeper structural changes in Japan. It could also force the country to face a long-debated and difficult decision: whether it is willing to trade some of the egalitarianism it takes such pride in to embrace a freer form of capitalism that could break the grip of vested interests and reverse a long decline.
"The T.P.P. is a battle over what kind of country we want Japan to be," said Hisaharu Ito, a top official in Aichi Prefecture's Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, referring to the trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His organization represents some 10,000 full-time farmers who fiercely oppose the trade group.
He added, "Do we want to turn into a harsh society of winners and losers, or remain a gentler society where benefits are shared?"
Japan's joining the trade group could have an added advantage for the United States, possibly opening some of Japan's still impenetrable markets to American products.
Here in Tahara, a city in central Aichi, where rice paddies and cabbage fields run up against a Lexus plant, Shigeaki Okamoto is the rare voice in the farming community pushing for change. He says Japanese farmers could compete without the tariffs they have been sheltered behind if they were allowed to become entrepreneurial.