Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated today while electioneering, was his country’s indispensable man. Prime minister of Japan for much of this century, from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020, Abe’s stature on the world stage eclipsed that of other post-war Japanese leaders, just as his time in office surpassed them all.
For a taste of the shock of his murder, look back to the surprise and incredulity which met his resignation from office in the pandemic’s worst days. Plagued by a debilitating health condition which had earlier caused him to leave office in 2007, Abe concluded he did not have the stamina left to rule.
Outside observers of Japan — who had watched Abe consolidate domestic power, develop a new economic regime, and increasingly come to personify his country in foreign capitals — were left almost speechless. “What will his country do now?” they asked at that time.
For some, that might seem an absurd question. Japan is politically decorous, and notably stable. It is not normally beholden to rancor and political violence. Abe’s successors should have counted upon stable institutions and political deference to give them the chance to run the country in their own ways.
Yet of the two prime ministers there have been since, neither has managed to strike out for themselves. Yoshihide Suga, a man of age and authority, managed to mishandle both Covid and the Olympics — becoming historically unpopular. He was gone within a year. Fumio Kishida, who followed Suga, won an election at the head of the party of government, but lost seats in the process. Abe remained influential to both men.
Leader of the conservative bloc within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, widely respected and heard on issues of security and international affairs, Abe’s biographer Tobias Harris estimated that, on foreign policy issues especially, Abe’s bully pulpit was greater than that of the prime minister. On Twitter, Harris noted that Abe was killed abruptly at the very point his power — even out of office — seemed greatest.
In office, Abe combined deft management of this new power with divisiveness. He pursued an economic policy that attempted to spur Japan’s flagging economy into real growth. With increasing desperation, it is still followed by his successors.
At the beginning of the century, Abe was a new, vigorous conservative, a man whose politics came at least in part from his unabashed Japanese nationalism. He was a revisionist of Japan’s place in the course and wars of the last century. Some of his supporters venerated the leaders of wartime Japan and sought to minimize the crimes the imperial government had committed.
Instinctively, this might have ruffled American feathers. It certainly made Abe unpalatable in China — although there were other reasons for that. Some American observers predicted that Abe’s revisionist nationalism would make him incapable of a strong relationship with America. They could not have been more wrong.
It was on the international stage that Abe left his mark. He grew up in and inherited a Japan constitutionally weakened, allowed only vestigial armed forces, committed to a kind of official pacifism, and with a society seemingly deeply ambivalent about the concept of self-defense.
With Communist China aggrieved and increasingly aggressive, democratic Japan is a natural ally of the free world. Abe knew this, and built upon it. He made sure America knew that whatever whitewashed version of history Abe subscribed to, his determination to raise his country to the level of a regional power was primarily defensive. A strengthening Japan under Abe was not an incipient empire; it was a dependable friend.
Abe himself travelled incessantly and endlessly engaged foreign leaders. They grew to like and trust him. The depths of international tributes to him attest to this. Foreign leaders like India’s Narendra Modi are not just being polite when they talk of Abe’s influence on them.
India’s a big and rough power with little reason to listen to Japan. Modi is an unrepentant and bigoted nationalist. When he says Abe’s view of international affairs made a great impression on him, he means it. It’s a testament to Abe’s success in making his country an international player.
Within Japan, however, the abandonment of pacifism was taken rather more seriously. The greatest protests against Abe’s time in government arose in 2015, when he pushed legislation through the National Diet allowing for something that every other country already knew and permitted: namely, a law that allowed Japan’s armed forces to operate overseas, to defend an ally under attack. Basic reciprocity, basic international statesmanship, was controversial in Japan and caused more than a hundred thousand to take to the streets in protest.
This is the challenge Abe faced and — within reason, because he never touched the pacifist Article 9 in Japan’s post-war constitution — the political climate he transformed.
Abe’s time in office was unexpectedly cut short, and many of the changes he pioneered never quite emerged. Reviewers of a recent biography suggest that Abe’s domestic reforms were surprisingly meager, given the length of his time in office. Perhaps that is true.
But Japan is now an essential partner of the democratic world in Asia. It has transcended economic stagnation, demographic decline and institutional pacifism to become a diplomatic and military force again. Abe is the reason this has happened. Even out of office, he was Japan’s primary international theorist. Now he is really gone, what will his country do?
This piece was originally published in Spectator World.