Remembering Shinzo Abe, Japan’s oldest leader

OWhen Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, stepped down in 2020, he hadn’t quite achieved what he had expected. He resigned due to poor health with dire approval ratings over his government’s handling of the coronavirus, including acting too late on lockdowns and a slow rollout of vaccines, a struggling economy and no success on his long-running campaign to revise the country’s pacifist constitution.

Perhaps that’s why Abe, who remained one of Japan’s most influential politicians even after his resignation, was still working to rewrite his legacy. His efforts, however, were cut short on July 8 when he was assassinated.

Abe, who served two terms as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020, was shot in the neck on Friday morning while delivering a speech in the western Japanese city of Nara , where he was campaigning for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. (LDP) before the legislative elections on Sunday. He died in the early evening at the age of 67.

The brazen attack stunned the world and sent shockwaves throughout Japan.

“He was a political giant,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. “He has been a continuous commanding presence…His voice carried considerable weight.”

Abe continued to ‘set the agenda’ for Japanese politics

When Abe left office in 2020, he told reporters it was “heartbreaking” to leave many of his goals unfinished.

But Abe, whose grandfather served as prime minister between 1957 and 1960, and whose father served as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986, continued to pull the strings from behind the scenes. “There is no doubt” that he remained one of the most influential figures in Japanese politics even after leaving office, says Tobias Harris, a longtime Japan observer based in Washington, D.C. who wrote a biography on Abe. “He is the leader of the biggest faction, the leader of the biggest ideological bloc in his party. And he tried to set the agenda in such a way that even [current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida] had trouble doing.

Read more: Yoshihide Suga will succeed Shinzo Abe as prime minister. What’s next for Japan?

Free from the limitations of elective office, Abe was perhaps even more influential. “He was a powerful voice in the Liberal Democratic Party, and he wasn’t burdened with the power of being Prime Minister, so I think he was much less restrained and continued to defend his positions on security and constitutional review,” Kingston said.

“For the last year or so, he’s enjoyed not being in power because he’s been wild. He can say whatever he wants,” Kingston adds. It “limited Kishida’s room to manoeuvre” .

Abe rewrote Japan’s place in the world

Abe will be remembered for remaking Japan. Kingston says he succeeded in “rekindling Japanese confidence and projecting a more confident and optimistic Japan”, after the collapse of the asset price bubble in the early 1990s that plunged Japan into a period of economic stagnation known as the “lost decades”. “During his tenure, tourism in Japan boomed and Japan became cool,” says Kingston.

Abe also played an outsized role in the success of the conservative LDP. He had led the party to several victories, including returning to power in 2012. The party had remained in power almost continuously since its formation in 1955, but the centrist Democratic Party of Japan was in power for three years from 2009. “I think I will be remembered as a politician who helped put a conservative stamp on Japanese politics,” Kingston said.

Abe had less success in revising his US-drafted constitution after World War II, which renounces war. Abe saw the changes as important to counter an increasingly belligerent North Korea and China’s growing military power, but he faced ambivalent public and legislative obstacles to changing the constitution. He has, however, raised Japan’s defense profile by creating alliances and leading his government to pass legislation in 2015 that allows Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time in 70 years.

Abe has strengthened Japan’s relationship with the United States, although it is unclear what benefits his notorious association with former US President Donald Trump brought to Japan. And it has built new partnerships with countries like India and Australia.

“He was kind of big on the world stage, he showed up at the big meetings… he probably met more world leaders than 10 of his predecessors put together, so he was very active diplomatically” , says Kingston.

Not all of Abe’s diplomacy was successful, and his warmongering nationalism earned him enemies abroad. Relations with South Korea, an important economic and security partner for Japan, fell to a decades-long low during his tenure, mainly due to historical grievances. The long-running dispute over “comfort women” – girls and women forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels – has escalated into a trade war. He was also unable to improve relations with China, and his advocacy of China’s military modernization angered Beijing.

And despite Abe’s unparalleled power in modern Japanese politics, he was also unpopular with many Japanese. His “Abenomics” economic stimulus packages have made marginal gains, many wiped out by COVID-19, and his tenure has been marred by numerous corruption scandals. “He leaves a mixed legacy,” says Kingston.

But in death, as in life, Abe will cast a shadow over Japanese politics. “I think the PLD will probably get a win [in Sunday’s elections] because of what happened today,” says Ichiro Asahina, political analyst and director of Aoyamashachu Corporation, a think tank. “People will be sympathetic to Mr Abe, which means they will probably vote for the LDP.”

–With reporting by Mayako Shibata in Tokyo and Michael Zennie.

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