Abe was the most important Japanese politician of his generation. In office, he not only served longer than any other prime minister, but he left behind a legacy of change in a nation where political gravity is entrenched in the status quo. While the totality of his eight years in office could not match the extraordinary first years of his second term, he will go down in history as a political giant.
Abe’s desire for change has drawn suspicion about his motives. In particular, many were discouraged by the patriotism embodied in his 2006 book, “Vers un beau pays”. Shortly after its publication, Abe became Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister, and the future looked bright.
But after a year in office, Abe’s beautiful country hasn’t quite materialized and he’s been knocked out – knocked down by low poll numbers, cabinet scandals and his ulcerative colitis. He was confined, it seemed, to political insignificance. That Abe not only fought his way back to the top, but righted the wrongs of his first term is perhaps the most extraordinary part of his story.
It would have been easy for him to let go – take a series of jobs behind the scenes with the Liberal Democratic Party and work behind the scenes. Instead, with new drugs helping to contain his illness, Abe won domestic support when the LDP was forced into opposition in 2009. His moment came three years later, when as leader of the party, he pushed the Democratic Party of Japan to agree to an early election. . Soon he was back in power, rejuvenated and vowing to “take back Japan.” It was an extraordinarily active few years: Abe took the predominant post-bubble narrative of Japan as a failed nation and turned it on its head.
He repositioned Japan as a geopolitical power. Initially treated with suspicion by the Obama administration, Abe’s approach to China – a healthy mix of warmongering skepticism and realpolitik recognition of its trade status – became what is now the thorn in the side. backbone of Western policy toward President Xi Jinping’s regime. Abe has worked to unite countries with similar interests to contain China, sow the seeds of the Quad and bring Japan so close to India that the country declared a day of national mourning at the announcement of its dead. He also lobbied to make Japan a more egalitarian ally, spending significant political capital to pass legislation easing restrictions on the military.
Abe led supposedly protectionist Japan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even as the United States turned away. Despite initial public opposition, he saved the deal after both candidates for the 2016 US presidential election turned their backs on the deal.
Nationally, his achievements are often underestimated. While the “three arrows” of his Abenomics program failed to fuel the 2% inflation he had promised during his tenure, his forceful use of the first two – monetary and fiscal policy levers – released the Japan from the deflationary spiral that threatened to spiral out of control. His support for corporate governance and stewardship reforms changed Japan’s boardrooms permanently. And its support for women in the workplace, while there is still a long way to go, will see lasting change, with more women now in the workplace and rising through the ranks of leadership.
Not everything was a success, of course. The third arrow of Abenomics – structural economic reform – never quite flew, and it failed to reshape the labor market as the country needed. He never saw his dream of reforming the constitution. During the last year of his administration, he was losing steam, dodging allegations of scandal. Much of his energy at the end went into appeasing Donald Trump, who came to power full of 1980s ideas about Japan.
Unfortunately, there won’t be a final redemptive arc for Abe’s final years. Covid has forced the postponement of the Olympic Games which he helped bring so much to Tokyo. The stress of coping with the pandemic seemed to rekindle his illness, forcing him to resign as Prime Minister in 2020. While the Olympics were successfully held in 2021, the Games without spectators were neither the celebration nor of Japan, nor of the triumph over Covid, which Abe had hoped for.
The question now is where his absence will be most keenly felt. Until his death, Abe was a political colossus. As leader of the LDP’s largest faction, he was a kingmaker, while as the party’s most prominent warmongering voice, he worked to overthrow the post-war consensus that held the country. More recently, he argued that Japan should double its defense spending and suggested that the country should harbor US nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has both pretended to endorse some of Abenomics’ ideas, but has also rejected many of its “neoliberal” principles in favor of redistributive policies. With the politics of new capitalism – perhaps bolder than Abe’s ideas but also harder to grasp – Kishida sought to chart a new path for the economy, a path many had expected her to follow. become clearer after Sunday’s elections.
The tragedy may now make it harder for Kishida to distance himself from Abe so explicitly. In the coming months, he will have to decide whether to replace Haruhiko Kuroda at the Bank of Japan, a decision that could define Kishida’s entire economic legacy. Abe’s death comes as yen falls to historic low; and there is intense pressure on the BOJ to join other central banks in the tightening, although Kishida has largely backed the Abe-Kuroda consensus so far.
Internationally, things are safer. Thanks to Abe, the United States now counts on Japan as its main ally in the region. Kishida follows the pattern. Some feared he was being too soft on China, but his strong rhetoric and actions since invading Ukraine appear to have allayed those concerns. The geopolitical consensus that Abe has spent so much time on is likely to strengthen, at least until the next US presidential election.
However, Kishida may need special powers to match Abe’s ability to translate political and security issues into action in the real world. What other Japanese leader could embody Superman, a samurai and Super Mario at the same time? Fifteen years ago, Abe pledged to make Japan “a new role model in the international community of the 21st century”. It seems much less fanciful now than it did then. He undoubtedly leaves behind a more beautiful Japan. But his future seems less certain without him.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
The Lasting Legacy of a Short-Term Prime Minister: Gearoid Reidy
China’s belligerence ruins its chance to lead Asia (Mihir Sharma)
Japan’s assertive foreign policy can start in Southeast Asia: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion