Shinzo Abe's legacy is a different Japan, braced for a more unstable world

The assassinated ex-PM had long warned Japanese people that geopolitics was becoming unpredictable, and they had to be ready

Shinzo Abe was assassinated in Nara, Japan on July 8, 2022. Reuters
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One might say that Shinzo Abe’s career had been preordained from the very moment he was born, into one of Japan’s most prominent political families, in 1954. But that is true only to the extent that he followed his father and both grandfathers into national politics.

Long before his life was cruelly cut short on Friday, when he was shot dead by a lone gunman while campaigning for his party in the prefecture of Nara, Abe had carved out a place for himself in modern Japanese history that will be his alone for a very long time to come.

Not only did he serve as prime minister, but he also served in that position longer than anyone else before him, including his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. Wielding power for almost eight years, across two stints, in an ultra-competitive system that rarely ever allows for lengthy terms or political comebacks, is an achievement in and of itself.

But while the record books are often rewritten, Abe’s place in the annals of history is more secure because of the fundamental ways in which he has shaped 21st-century Japan and the new Asian order.

His first stint in power, beginning in 2006, was so replete with scandals, scams, gaffes and gross violations of the law that it lasted only a year. In a sense, it wasn’t all that different from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tumultuous time in Downing Street over the past three years.

But unlike the lack of clarity that has come to characterise the “Global Britain” foreign policy doctrine championed by Mr Johnson in the aftermath of Brexit, Abe will forever be credited for formalising the Quadrilateral Dialogue – or the “Quad” – in 2007. According to experts, the purpose of the grouping, which includes Australia, India, Japan and the US, is to balance the rise of China. Judging by how successive administrations in all four countries have only strengthened the forum over the years, its role is almost certain to grow in the coming decades.

Abe carved out a place for himself in modern Japanese history that will be his alone for a very long time to come

Few could have predicted the significance of Abe’s big foreign policy decision at the time; it certainly wasn’t enough for him to save his job. But even as he was left on the sidelines for the next five years, he began laying the groundwork for a comeback of the kind few Japanese politicians had ever managed.

Abe succeeded in returning to power in 2012. Japan had been reeling from the strongest earthquake ever recorded in its history. It killed nearly 20,000 people, and caused billions of dollars’ worth of material damage. With the ruling party at the time struggling to rebuild the country, Abe, as leader of the opposition, seemed in that moment to be the right man.

During the 2012 election and in the years after it, Abe found a way to connect with, inspire and rally the public. He evoked Japan’s glorious past and convinced voters that a strong government was necessary to lift the country out of its “lost decades” of economic stagnation. Abe introduced a three-pronged package to rejuvenate the Japanese economy, but just as important to him was the need to revive Japan’s standing in the world – not dissimilar to the vision Emmanuel Macron would eventually sell to the French public when he came to power in 2017.

For the first time since the 1980s, there was a renewed sense of purpose in Japanese politics, and the results were there for all to see. As the country made an economic recovery, finally growing again, its passive stance on the global stage evolved to a more active one.

Abe personally campaigned for Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, and his government aggressively promoted tourism in the run-up to the summer games as part of an initiative called “Cool Japan”. When then US president Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe rallied the nine other Pacific nations to create a Japan-led trade deal called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. He deepened Japan’s relations with India, and expanded its ties across the Arab world. He increased foreign aid to emerging nations in Asia and Africa. Abe, it seemed, was a man in a hurry on the world stage.

But his legacy has been as controversial as it was consequential – particularly at home.

He was an ultraconservative, and his government revised school curriculums to create a nationalistic drive among children. He also attempted to reduce Japan’s sense of culpability for atrocities it committed in China and Korea during the Second World War. And he worked strenuously towards revising Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution that, among other things, restricts the country’s ability to wage conflict around the world.

According to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, Japan’s “Self-Defence Forces” can go to war only when the country is perceived to be under attack. For decades Abe, and a number of right-wing politicians like him, called for the article to be amended if not entirely removed, deeming it outdated and encumbering of Japan’s rightful place in the world as a power.

However, because of how deeply unpopular the idea is among the electorate, prime minister Abe was unable to amend the article even though he commanded large majorities in both houses of the National Diet (as the Japanese parliament is called) – although he did circumvent the problem to some extent by passing a law "re-interpreting" the meaning of the article that allows troops to fight overseas. Today, the war in Ukraine may have moved the needle on the issue ever so slightly – particularly as Russia shares a maritime border with Japan, with a chain of islands under dispute since the end of the Second World War. For Abe, who led the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, constitutional revision was an idea whose time had finally come.

There is little doubt that the long-standing rules-based global order is experiencing a violent shake-up these days. Perhaps Abe’s enduring legacy, in addition to Japan’s strengthened role on the world stage, will be that his acolytes will carry on this particular fight, and possibly even win.

Published: July 08, 2022, 11:22 AM
Updated: July 14, 2022, 7:36 AM