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The Complicated Legacy of Shinzo Abe

I was in class when Shinzo Abe was assassinated in a city I had visited several weeks prior. The incredulity was palpable in Japan – not least because of the paucity of murders of any kind here, and the use of a gun in a country with among the world’s most stringent gun controls. But perhaps the most staggering thing of all was the target: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was one of the most consequential – and controversial – leaders in postwar Japanese history. 

Politician and kingmaker, Abe sought to rewrite Japanese history at the expense of atonement. He was intent on reconfiguring Japan’s place on the international stage – a goal inherited, perhaps, from his father and grandfather’s nationalist politics. Abe was indeed born to occupy the highest ranks of Japanese political power. His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a fierce nationalist and suspected Class A war criminal who led Japan from 1957 to 1960. Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, served as chief cabinet secretary. Both Abe’s father and grandfather were hugely influential figures in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – the conservative party that has ruled Japan with few interruptions for 70 years – as was Shinzo Abe himself. 

Abe’s first year in office in 2006 was marred by scandals and missteps, and his sudden resignation in 2007 followed a heavy loss for the LDP in the upper house legislative elections. In 2012, however, the LDP returned to power, and Abe to prime ministership – he remained in power until 2020, largely unchallenged due to his influence in the LDP.

As Prime Minister, Abe sought to reassert Japan’s presence in international affairs. He cultivated strong relationships with such world leaders as Donald Trump and Malcom Turnbull, but exacerbated tensions between Japan and its East Asian neighbours with his blatant revisionist views – particularly after his 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial symbol linked to Japan’s militarism during WWII. Abe’s unwillingness to fully acknowledge Japan’s aggression and atrocities during WWII ultimately enshrined his status as a highly controversial figure, particularly to China and South Korea, which had suffered under Japan’s militarism during the war. 

Abe’s most cherished goal was to revise Japan’s ‘pacifist’ constitution; a goal he never achieved. Abe was clear that much of his effort in this regard was to exonerate the name of his grandfather. Nonetheless, he did, in 2015, manage to pass legislation allowing Japan to take part in overseas combat missions alongside allies. This was hugely controversial, sparking anti-war protests that hadn’t been seen in Japan since the 1960s Anpo demonstrations

The success of Abe’s economic program – ‘Abenomics’ – was dubious. It was intended as shock therapy for Japan’s moribund economy after more than two decades of deflation. As political branding, Abenomics was a success; certainly, the word made its way into the global lexicon. The policies themselves, however, fell short of Abe’s own economic target, and exacerbated economic inequality. Japan slipped back into recession in early 2020.  

For all Abe’s flaws, the LDP did manage to win six straight elections under his leadership; the length of his tenure enabled Abe to establish long-standing relationships with world leaders in a way that other prime ministers have had difficulty matching. Beyond his perception as a hawkish nationalist, he was pragmatic and savvy in foreign affairs. He did, in many ways, make Japan an important player in global policy. His tenure also generated momentum in Japan’s foreign policy, and Prime Minister Kishida’s assertive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be considered a result of Abe’s legacy. 

Abe’s death will undoubtedly have shaken the LDP’s long-term policy agenda; the party has lost a centre of gravity. But beyond that, it is, in some measure, a symbolic loss for Japanese people in a society of such scarce violence.

Image: Ajswab, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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