August 2022

Shinzo Abe has gone, but his project will live on

A man wearing a face mask offers a silent prayer for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a makeshift altar outside the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) headquarters in Tokyo. The Japanese government decided to honor Abe, who was assassinated in Nara in early July, with the Collar of the Supreme Order for the Chrysanthemum, making him the fourth former prime minister to receive the nation's highest decoration. Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin - All Rights Reserved.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida moved quickly to declare that the late Shinzo Abe would be awarded a state funeral, the first for a prime minister since Shigeru Yoshida in 1967. Kishida’s decision was not without controversy. Polls show the public is divided over whether Abe should receive this honor, and opposition parties are preparing to challenge Kishida on the issue in the forthcoming Diet session.

The controversy surrounding Abe’s state funeral is at least in part due to the heightened scrutiny of his and the Liberal Democratic Party’s relationship with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, better known as the Unification Church, in the wake of Abe’s assassination. But public division over his funeral reflects the fact that Abe’s political career was both profoundly consequential and deeply controversial.

From his first election to the House of Representatives in 1993, Abe pursued an ambitious political project that he perhaps described most clearly during his first tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007: breaking away from the postwar regime.

He and the other New Conservatives who entered the Diet around the end of the Cold War were determined to remove the constraints on the Japanese state imposed at the end of World War II, including not only the postwar constitution and its war-renouncing Article 9, but also its education system, its political and administrative systems, and its national security institutions. This would enable the state to defend the Japanese nation from 21st century challenges.

This agenda was not necessarily new. Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was no less determined to remove these constraints when he re-entered politics after the U.S. occupation. But he failed, despite the fact that these institutions were not yet deeply embedded.

Indeed, it was an approach to statecraft that stretched back to the Meiji Restoration, when, in the name of strengthening Japan’s ability to fend off the threat of Western empires in Asia and compete with them on their own terms, reformers overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and built a modern state in its place.

What differed for Abe is that the turmoil of the early 1990s – the bursting of Japan’s financial bubble, the end of the Cold War, and the end of the LDP’s uninterrupted stretch of dominance in 1993 followed by the introduction of a new electoral system in 1993 – created new opportunities for the conservatives to advance their project.

Over Abe’s 30-year career, he and his contemporaries remade the LDP into a more uniformly conservative, disciplined parliamentary party; backed the introduction of a more top-down, centralized decision-making process for the Japanese state, strengthening the prime minister at the expense of other actors; and building a national security establishment unlike anything Japan had had during the postwar era. Abe may not have been alone in pursuing this project, but as he emerged as the leading politician of his generation, he became its most important protagonist, particularly after his return to the LDP’s leadership and the premiership in 2012.

It was inevitable that this project would be divisive. For many Japanese, particularly older people, the postwar regime was not an outmoded relic to be cast off but a source of peace and prosperity and a check against revisiting the authoritarianism and violence of the country’s imperial past.

While the public’s attitudes towards constitutional revision have fluctuated since the 1990s – with polls sometimes showing majorities in favor of revision – most did not share Abe’s antipathy towards the U.S.-drafted constitution, and his eagerness to change the constitution may have in fact weakened support for revision during his premierships.

The public did not necessarily appreciate his top-down, majoritarian approach to governance either. This was clear when Abe opted to use his parliamentary majorities to pass legislation that did not command public support, particularly moves that strengthened national security institutions, even at the expense of civil liberties, as was the case with the 2013 state secrecy act that attracted large protests across the country.

But Abe welcomed political conflict. In his 2006 book Towards a Beautiful Country, he said there were two kinds of politician: those who fight, and those who do not. He felt there was nothing more important than fighting for the vision of the country he wanted to achieve, and not backing down in the face of criticism or protest. This is, without doubt, an arrogant, uncompromising approach to politics, what has often been called a “high posture” approach and which meant that some of Abe’s achievements did not rest on a broad social consensus.

However, over the course of his career, Abe succeeded in his relentless pursuit of a stronger Japanese state. Japan’s political leaders are now more capable of planning and executing their foreign and security policies and responding to crises. The country can now serve as a regional and global leader as never before, just as it faces a more challenging regional security environment than ever before.

His record was not universally successful, however. At home, the Abe administration and the Bank of Japan failed to deliver a virtuous cycle of rising wages and prices, the shift to higher-value-added growth is still a work in progress, and the workforce and population continue their long-term decline. His foreign policy successes were more numerous, but there were still notable failures. His efforts to realign Japan’s relationship with Russia and prevent a closer China-Russia relationship was unsuccessful even before the rift caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japan’s ties with South Korea are the worst they have been since relations were established in 1965. And his successors will have to manage a more challenging relationship with China and continue to work to keep the U.S. fully engaged in Asia.

But ultimately, during his second administration, Abe left blueprints for Japan’s foreign and economic policies that it will be difficult for his successors and rivals to surpass. His legacy abroad – a stronger state pursuing a strategy of drawing the U.S. deeper into the Indo-Pacific region, strengthening ties with Australia and India bilaterally and through the Quad, bolstering Japan’s role as a partner for Southeast Asia, and drawing European powers into Asian security – is here to stay. While many of the achievements of his Abenomics economic programme were reversed by the pandemic and the global impact of the Ukraine war, Abe’s fundamental approach to economic policy – the belief that the Japanese state needs to be prepared to experiment with both macroeconomic and industrial policies to secure national prosperity – will likely survive him.

The world will no doubt throw unanticipated challenges at Kishida and his successors. But for years to come, they will be the children of Abe’s revolution, using the institutions he championed and the policies he articulated to navigate what he called the “the raging waves” of the 21st century.

Tobias Harris is Senior Fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan