Shinzo Abe: A confident actor leaves the world stage

Abe’s assassination is a brutal and shocking departure from the norm in a country which prides itself on its security and the absence of violence in politics.

Expert comment Published 11 July 2022 3 minute READ

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

While direct attacks on politicians are not unknown in postwar Japan, they are comparatively rare – it has been decades since politicians with a national standing as prominent as Abe have been the subject of such assassination attempts.

Just two days on from the tragic shooting of Japan’s former prime minister, the country’s Upper House elections delivered a decisive victory for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which, together with its coalition partner Komeito, now has 146 seats in the 245 seat House of Councillors.

Together with two smaller conservative parties – the Japan Innovation Party and Democratic Party for the People (DPF) – the government has more than two-thirds of the seats required for constitutional revision, a policy priority long-favoured by Abe, although it is too early to know whether this result represents a public endorsement of his approach. Certainly expectations of a markedly increased turnout as a show of sympathy were not realized.

If political leadership is measured in the ability to take advantage of crises to advance a particular agenda, then Abe was an especially astute premier

Constitutional issues remain controversial and Japan prime minister Fumio Kishida has signalled his immediate priority to be combatting rising prices and boosting defence spending, whereas the key areas for Abe’s influence to be most durable and significant are in foreign policy – his importance as a transformative political figure here cannot be overstated.

A reforming leader who moved beyond the traditional

In security and defence policy Abe – with his key strategic advisers, both politicians and civil servants – introduced a raft of reforms, such as establishing the country’s National Security Council in 2013, strengthening cabinet government, and drafting a national State Secrecy Law to enhance the country’s intelligence capacity.

He also brought new legislation to allow the country’s Self-Defence Forces to participate in collective security initiatives with countries beyond Japan’s traditional reliance on the US-Japan alliance, and launched a series of new mini-lateral security partnerships with countries in Asia – most notably Australia and India – and further afield in Europe with the UK and France.

Abe was a pragmatic realist, convinced of the importance of upholding the rules-based international system and conscious that Japan’s desire to enhance its own global profile and status required it to promote genuine collective international goals, rather than the narrow national interests of the country.

He built on past achievements of similarly pragmatic premiers such as Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s and Jun’ichiro Koizumi in the early 2000s in fostering the emergence of a more ‘proactive’ Japan, but his success in advancing this trend was in part a function of his longevity as a politician, having served a record eight years in office.

Abe’s ability to move away from the more low profile, inherently cautious diplomacy of earlier Japanese administrations was due to the increasingly challenging regional security threats Japan faced, especially a nuclear North Korea and a more assertive and regionally-ambitious China.

If political leadership is measured in the ability to take advantage of crises to advance a particular agenda, then Abe was an especially astute premier, deploying an eclectic set of policy tools including traditional diplomacy, national security policy, economic capacity, soft power, and public advocacy to markedly enhance Japan’s presence on the global stage.

Abe remained acutely conscious that winning support at home via a credible economic policy agenda was a necessary and critical foundation for delivering ambitious foreign policy priorities

Abe was as committed to bolstering international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), ASEAN, the Asian Development Bank, and the TICAD African development forum as he was to strengthening existing bilateral partnerships. In the US-Japan relationship, Abe demonstrated his political astuteness and diplomatic agility, helping to bolster the partnership during the tumultuous Donald Trump years and minimizing any risk a transactional and potentially bullying US president could undermine Japan’s interests.

Popularity at home vital for his foreign policy ambition

But his achievements as an international statesman were paralleled by those in the domestic policy space, particularly economic policy which was critical in helping him win successive elections as leader of the LDP. Even when his ambitious foreign policy agenda and his focus on constitutional revision failed to gain traction with the electorate in 2006-07, Abe remained acutely conscious that winning support at home via a credible economic policy agenda was a necessary and critical foundation for delivering ambitious foreign policy priorities.

To harmonize the foreign and domestic dimensions of national policy, Abe developed his signature policy ‘Abenomics’ as a vital commitment to tackling the challenges of Japan’s lost decades of relative economic stagnation from the 1990s onwards. But although powerful in its declaratory impact, Abenomics was less notable in its substantive effects.

In many respects it demonstrated the limits of fiscal, monetary, and structural reform policies in shifting the needle of economic recovery, despite the need to prioritize these three reforming ‘arrows’. But Abe should be given credit for highlighting the urgency of tackling the core economic challenges, even if his accomplishments in fostering a sustained breakthrough in Japan’s economic performance were less notable.

In several areas Abe’s policy achievements are less clear cut, such as a failure to fully normalize relations with Russia over disputed territorial issues left over from World War Two, persistent diplomatic tensions with South Korea over contentious questions from Japan’s colonial domination of the Korean peninsula, and limited progress on social issues at home, especially his much-touted ‘Womenomics’.

Wider controversies surrounded identity politics, constitutional revision, and Japan’s historical responsibilities – issues which divided opinion at home and provoked tensions with Japan’s neighbours. Abe’s nationalist and revisionist inclinations were highly controversial but should be seen as part of a wider global trend towards populist politics.

With leaders of many countries today seeking to bolster national pride without compromising their international responsibilities – a difficult line to tread – Abe should be credited with some success in balancing these often conflicting goals.

Shinzo Abe: A confident actor leaves the world stage 2nd part

Ultimately, Abe should be recognized for two things – his patient persistence in raising Japan’s diplomatic status and presence in the world, and his ability to innovate in support of this goal. Abe’s mantra that ‘Japan’s is back’ in some respects underplayed his achievements.

As he showed with the promotion of the QUAD partnership between Japan, the US, Australia, and India, and in coming up with the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), Abe developed policies which shaped the policies of other countries, especially the US which incorporated the latter vision as part of its own foreign policy agenda.

Japan under Abe’s leadership was not only ‘stepping up to the plate’ – as former US deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage frequently said – but by assuming increased international responsibility, it was making the diplomatic and political weather. Abe helped give Japan a newfound confidence and influence in global affairs which is likely to become his biggest legacy.