World

Shinzo Abe’s Secure and Enduring Legacy

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 28, 2020. (Franck Robichon/Pool via Reuters)
The former Japanese prime minister’s vision should serve as a model for conservative leaders around the globe.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would soon be leaving his post on August 28, four days after becoming the longest-tenured prime minister in his nation’s history. On Wednesday, he officially stepped aside. Abe has led Japan since 2012, but that only marked the start of his second stint at the helm. His is somewhat of a comeback story, as his initial go-round was marred by scandal and ended in September 2007, exactly one year after his inauguration. The son of a foreign minister and grandson of another prime minister, Abe is a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has dominated Japan’s post-war political scene. Abe’s first and second terms were separated by a period of political instability in Japan, during which it had five different prime ministers, none of whom served for longer than a year and a half. Japan was also plagued with an underperforming economy that contracted three of the five years preceding Abe’s second term.

Under Abe, Japan has found its footing economically, posting positive, if modest, growth rates every year. This has been attributed to Abe’s three-“arrow” approach, deemed “Abenomics,” which consists of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus in the form of increased government spending, and structural reforms that liberalized parts of the Japanese economy, encouraged women’s participation in it, and lowered the corporate tax rate.

Abe also advocated a far more active role for Japan on the world stage. In an early speech to the National Diet — Japan’s bicameral legislature — Abe announced that Japan would seek a foreign policy “based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law.” In his first 20 months on the job, Abe visited 49 different countries. This stands in stark contrast to his two most recent predecessors, who visited 18 countries in a similar timespan. Abe’s travel was part of a broader effort to expand Japan’s outlook beyond the three countries that have traditionally dominated it: the United States, China, and South Korea. He was extremely successful in this regard, reaching an economic agreement with Australia, establishing a long-term defense relationship with the United Kingdom, and developing a close working relationship with India’s Narenda Modi.

That’s not to say he ignored the “big three” though. During the Obama years, Abe visited the White House and addressed a joint session of Congress. He also made history in December 2016 as the first Japanese leader to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. He has also, quite famously, cultivated a close relationship with Donald Trump.

Japan’s relationship with South Korea during Abe’s tenure has been somewhat rocky because of his reluctance to apologize for Imperial Japan’s crimes in the years leading up to and during the Second World War, especially those related to Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women.” The two countries did reach a settlement in 2015 on the matter that improved relations for a short time, but it was later discarded by the South Korea.

Sino-Japanese relations have been more of a rollercoaster. Other than Abenomics, Abe is perhaps best known for his support of revising the Japanese constitution to rid it of Article 9, the pacifist clause inserted by American occupiers after World War II. Though he will leave office having failed to do so, it won’t be for lack of trying. During his tenure, he has taken significant steps toward that goal — steps that have poked the dragon. In 2014 for example, Abe and his cabinet reinterpreted Article 9 to allow “collective self-defense” meaning that Japan would be well within its rights to come to the aid of an ally under attack. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency called the reinterpretation a “brutal violation” of Japan’s constitution, while its Foreign Ministry said the move raised questions about Japan’s commitment to peace in the region. Abe has also chided Chinese president Xi Jinping about the necessity of maintaining the “one country, two systems” arrangement between mainland China and Hong Kong, and supported Taiwan’s bid to obtain observer status at the WHO. Nevertheless, Abe has expressed an interest in thawing tensions between the historic rivals, and made efforts to that end by pledging to make it easier for Chinese citizens to obtain visas to visit Japan.

Abe’s accomplishments are too numerous to enumerate in full, but the extent of his success as prime minister can be seen in his party’s choice as his successor, Yoshidide Suga, who has served as Abe’s right-hand man in the role of chief cabinet secretary ever since Abe returned to power in 2012. Yuki Tatsumi, who serves as co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center, has declared that Suga’s ascent “assures the continuity in all the major policy initiatives launched by Shinzo Abe.” This includes another push toward removing or revising Article 9, as well as continuing Abe’s three-pronged economic program.

Shinzo Abe’s tenure has not been without its warts. He has failed to accomplish all of his goals — most notably a constitutional revision — and offended some in the region with his decidedly unconvincing apologies for Imperial Japan’s crimes. However, his economic program has provided much needed stability; his calculation regarding the need for a more imposing Japanese military given Chinese ambitions in the region has proven prescient; and his firm belief in both the nation state and the importance of a foreign policy that promotes “fundamental values” can serve as a model to other conservative leaders around the globe. For his efforts and example, Abe is assured a secure legacy, and one that will endure long after he leaves office.

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