By Olivia Kemp
On 8th July 2022, Shinzo Abe — the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history — died after being shot during a campaign speech.
Abe was a political blue blood. He inherited his political mission from his grandfather (and former prime minister), Nobusuke Kishi. Although Abe was forced to resign a mere year into his term as Prime Minister in 2007, he returned to the position in 2012 and held power until 2020. He won six consecutive elections. The length of his tenure ultimately rendered him the centre of gravity for the Liberal Democratic Party, and this was as such until the very moment of his death.
In the wake of his death, world leaders have expressed their grief and praise for Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His reputation as a leading global statesman should not be overlooked and his unparalleled seven years and eight months in office imbued him with extraordinary influence.
Many credit Abe for revitalising the economy with his ‘Abenomics’ formula — a term that has since entered the global lexicon. Reports that he boosted corporate profits, reversed ‘years of stagnant wages’ and ‘reduced unemployment to record lows’ have certainly circulated in the wake of his death. Yet one is dubious about the effects of ‘Abenomics’. Although it initially appeared to succeed as ‘shock therapy’ for the economy, the actual policies did not reach targets and saw Japan slip back into recession in 2020. Whilst he did, in many ways, make Japan a more powerful global policy participant, his economic policies fell short of aspirations and ultimately deepened economic inequality.
Yet it is not merely his economic policies that mark Abe as one of the most controversial leaders in Japanese history; no policy was more controversial than his cherished, yet ultimately unsuccessful dream to revise Japan’s ‘pacifist’ constitution, and remove the constraints imposed by the post-war ‘peace’ clause that restricted Japan’s military power. Such revisionist views and a blatant reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Japan during World War II particularly exacerbated relations with China and South Korea — two nations that suffered immensely during the war. Abe’s attempt to revise Japan’s war-renouncing constitution was ultimately an attempt to bolster respect for Japan on the global stage; Dave Leheny, a political scientist, argues that this is a result of him wanting Japan to ‘not have to keep apologising for World War II’.
Abe, then, was seeking to rewrite the brutal history of Japan, but he was ultimately unsuccessful. His only ‘success’ was the bypassing of Article Nine. He passed self-defence legislation in 2015 allowing Japan’s involvement in overseas combat missions. This was deeply controversial, however, and provoked intense anti-war protests that had not occurred since the 1960s. In many ways, then, Abe alienated many in Japan, but also war victims in China and South Korea.
Yet for all his flaws, Abe’s security policies were charming to others. They were most notably perceived by conservatives as security against China’s military force and the constant threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions. Moreover, he successfully fostered relationships and strengthened ties with world leaders such as Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull. He should be credited, then, for bolstering Japan’s role and alliances in global politics.
Abe’s legacy, however, is uncertain. Current prime minister Fumio Kishida has declared his aim to progress Abe’s relentless drive for constitutional revision. Yet this announcement lacks detail and there has been no further comment with regard to how this may be achieved. Perhaps, in some sense, this will allow Kishida to make his mark away from the aura of controversy surrounding Abe’s policies. Nonetheless, Kishida has lost the powerful force at the core of his party. Although he was a complex character, Abe’s influence and drive is currently unmatched.
On a broad level, then, the death of Abe will have markedly unsettled the LDP. He was poised to continue essential work and debates with regard to the long-term policy agenda. He is enshrined as a controversial and influential political figure. He was a dominant political power until his death. His stature leaves a large void for Kishida and his colleagues to fill. Perhaps on a more intimate level, however, his death marks a symbolic loss for Japan — a society with such scarce gun crime overall.
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