Shinzo Abe: Japan’s Great Statesman of Judgement and Strength

Posted on Saturday, July 9, 2022
by AMAC Newsline
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AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was killed by an assassin’s bullet on Friday at the age of 67, marking a tragic end to a remarkable career for one of the 21st century’s most influential statesmen. As Japan’s longest serving prime minister, Abe was a consequential leader who left an indelible mark on post-war Asia, both through his comprehensive vision for defining Japan’s place in the world and his ability to translate that vision into action.

Born into a family with a distinguished political lineage (Abe’s grandfather had served as prime minister from 1957-1960, and his father had served as foreign minister from 1982-1986) Abe distanced himself early from elite circles, even as he embraced tradition and history. After graduating from college in Japan, Abe attended the University of Southern California to study Policy, Planning, and Development before working for several years in private practice.

Eventually, however, Abe would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, winning election to the Japanese House of Representatives in 1993. From there he would go on to become the president of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP (the party representing conservative interests in Japan) in 2006, before being confirmed as Prime Minister of Japan – becoming the youngest person to ever hold the post and the first Japanese Prime Minister born after World War II. Abe would serve two stints as Prime Minster, first from 2006-2007 and then from 2012-2020, changing the course of Japanese politics and Japan’s relationship to the rest of the world in the process.

As Abe once stated in an interview, he wanted to bring his country and the Pacific region into a “new morning.” Leftist critics of his regime often used such rhetoric to criticize Abe, seeing in his patriotism populist, protectionist, and even fascist impulses – not unlike the U.S. media’s treatment of former President Donald Trump.

But Abe understood that stability, peace, and the building of a strong nation requires convincing an effective majority of people within a country to strive toward the same set of goals and shared principles. For Abe, building a strong Japan also specifically meant strengthening its democratic institutions and sustaining economic growth – two principles which underpinned many of his reforms.

For example, Abe was instrumental in shifting Japan away from a “first-past-the-post” electoral system, in which the candidate who wins a plurality of votes wins the election, to a Westminster system, where representation is proportional to the percentage of votes earned by a candidate or party. In effect, this reform weakened the power of leadership in Japan’s government but empowered every individual representative, decreasing the power gap between voters and elected officials.

As Prime Minister, Abe also focused on deregulation and getting government out of the way of economic growth. He cut tariffs on agricultural products, cut red tape, and reduced bureaucratic waste. According to one estimate, Abe was successful in reducing the number of government bureaucrats by 30 percent. But the backbone of the reforms promoted by Abe was his focus on small business growth. As part of this effort, he ended a whole raft of burdensome licensing requirements for the sale of rice, liquor, and nonprescription medications and other goods.

These policies would collectively come to fall under the umbrella of “Abenomics,” which described Abe’s approach to ending the economic stagnation faced by Japan during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Abenomics platform, which was officially implemented by the LDP during Abe’s second stint as Prime Minister beginning in 2012, is comprised of three tenets or “arrows” of policy: monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms.

These economic values brought about positive social change as well, as more women entered the workforce and less people become dependent on welfare. Legislative reforms encouraged start-ups, thus encouraging more investment at home rather than abroad. National pride soared, and Japan began a cultural resurgence that has played no small part in helping the country become a top destination globally for tourism.

On the international stage, Abe proved himself an adroit negotiator and influential leader, even as critics accused him of being a nationalistic war-monger. Indeed, Abe was a proud citizen of Japan despite its history during World War II,  which  often shocked and horrified the liberal media. But as Abe explained during a speech at Pearl Harbor in 2016, honoring the dead and remembering the past is about stopping wars, not starting them:

“We must never repeat the horrors of war again. This is the solemn vow we, the people of Japan, have taken. And since the war, we have created a free and democratic country that values the rule of law and has resolutely upheld our vow never again to wage war. We, the people of Japan, will continue to uphold this unwavering principle, while harboring quiet pride in the path we have walked as a peace-loving nation over these 70 years since the war ended.”

And indeed, Abe would make good on his promise to pursue peace, negotiating a treaty with Russia formally ending their declaration of war during World War II.

However, Abe also recognized that a strong national defense is a key element to preserving peace, particularly as China grew more aggressive in the region. Abe was the driving force behind the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad” strategic cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India to check China’s advances. Through this effort, Abe forged closer ties between Japan and India and Japan and the United States, creating a unified front against threats to democracy in the Pacific region.

In 2015, Abe and the LDP also passed reforms to Japanese law that would allow the country to participate in foreign military conflicts, revising the policy that had been in place since World War II that only allowed Japan to fight in “self-defense.” Watching China stretch its reach across the Pacific, Abe recognized that waiting until Japan was attacked directly may be too late. This change also allowed Japan to partner with the United States, South Korea, and Australia on a missile defense program that will benefit the security interests of every nation involved.

While this gargantuan effort to revise decades-old defense policy is still often under-appreciated by the foreign policy establishment, it promises to have dramatic implications in future conflicts with China, particularly for the United States. For example, if China were to attack U.S. destroyers in the South China Sea during a joint Japanese-U.S. military operation, the changes implemented by Abe and the LDP would allow the Japanese military to protect those U.S. warships and respond to Chinese aggression, whereas they would have been prohibited before. Likewise, Japan can now come to the aid of its allies abroad.

Upon news of his death, former President Donald Trump, who had developed a close relationship with Abe, rightly called him a unifier. By focusing on deepening relations with the United States and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific, Abe helped unify the democratic world to position themselves against the threat from China, a process that is ongoing to this day. At the same time, Abe’s prioritization of economic growth and free-market capitalism at home helped Japan become a shining global success story.

Abe’s legacy is one which will likely only be fully revealed to the world over the next number of years, as the profound effect of his policies are more fully understood. But regardless, the brutal and cowardly conditions of his death will do nothing to tarnish the incredible story and success of his life.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.