Inside Story

Has Shinzo Abe left a lasting legacy?

Departing at a crucial time, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister leaves much unfinished business

H.D.P. Envall 1 September 2020 2130 words

Contradictions: prime minister Shinzo Abe bows to the Japanese flag at the start of the press conference last Friday at which he announced his resignation. Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP

Once again prime minister Shinzo Abe — the ultimate princeling of Japanese politics — has resigned because of declining poll numbers and ill health. In May, Abe’s approval ratings in national polls entered what is seen as the “danger zone” for a prime minister (below 30 per cent), although they had improved slightly by August. On 24 August, Abe’s day-long trip to the Keio University Hospital led to speculation over whether he was again suffering from ulcerative colitis, the chronic illness that has dogged him for much of his life. On 28 August he announced his resignation.

Abe first resigned as prime minister for these same reasons nearly thirteen years ago. He had become Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister in 2006 with stratospheric approval ratings (in the 70 per cent range) but departed not only in poor health but with his approval ratings around or below 30 per cent. Assessing his legacy in 2007 was comparatively straightforward: he had squandered his chance of transforming Japan and fulfilling the thwarted ambitions of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister from 1957 until 1960. He had failed, especially, on constitutional reform, the major goal of the political right in Japan.

The explanation for Abe’s first fall seemed equally obvious. He was a victim of high public expectations and the inevitable disillusionment that follows. Unlike his charismatic predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Abe was a leaden media performer. His political judgement also proved poor. Rather than focus on economic growth and political reform, he pursued an esoteric nationalist agenda of constitutional reform, patriotic education and history denial. Instead of trying to revitalise Japanese politics, he allowed anti-reform politicians back into the government and failed to address a series of misconduct and corruption scandals. By September 2007, he was gone.

But then came the resurrection. In 2012, with his conservative Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, in opposition, and just months before a general election, Abe drew on the support of his fellow politicians to regain the party’s leadership against the wishes of rank-and-file members. The deeply unpopular coalition government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ, was swept away in the subsequent election, and Abe suddenly had a second, very unexpected, chance at power.

How well did he seize this second chance? And what will be his legacy?

Abe’s prime ministership will be known foremost for its longevity. In November last year he became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, holding office for 2887 days and overtaking Taro Katsura, a prime minister from the early 1900s. While at the Keio University Hospital last week, he became the longest continuously serving prime minister, overtaking his great-uncle (and Kishi’s brother) Eisaku Sato, a prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s. In short, Abe ended the revolving-door prime ministership that characterised Japanese politics from 2006 to 2012.

This longevity reflects Abe’s dominance of Japanese politics over this time. He has proven to be the most powerful Japanese political figure at least since his great-uncle’s tenure and probably since Shigeru Yoshida, who was prime minister in the 1940s and 1950s. Yoshida was helped greatly when his conservative rivals were purged by US occupation authorities. Abe has similarly benefited since 2012 from a lack of rivals within the LDP as well as the chaos and disunity among opposition parties. The DPJ disappeared in 2016 as part of a merger and its former members have subsequently burned through multiple reinventions.

But longevity and power don’t necessarily translate into lasting impact. Although Abe changed Japan in some important ways, he has also struggled to halt the deeper historical forces, international and domestic, that are challenging and reshaping the country and its place in the world.

Abe’s most consequential reforms came in security policy. He oversaw substantial reforms in Japan’s security-related institutions, strategic doctrine and defence spending. But his most significant legacy will be constitutional change. Abe never did formally revise the constitution as he wished. But he did manage to “reinterpret” Article 9 — the famous “peace clause” — in a way that could have enormous implications for Japan’s future security role in the Indo-Pacific. Through a cabinet decision in July 2014, the Japanese government announced that Article 9 would henceforth allow Japan to engage in collective self-defence, albeit with certain caveats. Article 9 had previously been interpreted to prohibit Japan from using its military beyond strict self-defence. Now, if certain conditions were met, Japan could come to the defence of an ally.

This shift, legislated in 2015, was hugely unpopular in Japan but represents perhaps the single most important shift in the country’s security policy since the second world war. It effectively undoes a major plank of the security policy established by Yoshida in the early 1950s and could conceivably allow Japan to be dragged into a range of conflict scenarios, such as on the Korean peninsula, over Taiwan, or in the South China Sea.

Abe was also an active diplomat. He pursued a strongly regional foreign policy orientation that eventually coalesced into his vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Japan continued to build strategic partnerships with like-minded actors around the region, especially Australia and India, and he strongly pushed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad,” of which Australia is a member. His regional focus also came through in economic policy. Abe kept the Trans-Pacific Partnership going after president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the arrangement, finally effecting an agreement between all the remaining members in 2018.

Set against these successes, though, were significant failures. Japan’s foreign affairs in its immediate neighbourhood of northeast Asia remain troubled, in its relations not only with China but also with South and North Korea, as well as Russia. These relationships are beset by strategic rivalries, territorial disputes and history wars. Japan’s relationship with South Korea, with whom it shares the United States as a common ally among many strategic interests, are probably as bad as they have been since the two sides normalised diplomatic relations in 1965.

On Donald Trump, Abe has been praised for skilful diplomacy intended to massage the US president’s ego and avoid the criticism that Trump has levelled at other allies and partners. In giving Trump a gold-plated golf driver, Abe was consciously echoing Kishi’s “golf diplomacy” with president Dwight Eisenhower. But Abe’s approach has been a holding manoeuvre at best, designed to limit short-term damage in the hope that the president will be replaced by a more competent and reliable leader in this year’s presidential election. The 2019 US–Japan trade deal was one-sided, with Japan effectively agreeing under duress. Although a closer relationship with the United States had been a major goal for Abe, doubts in Tokyo regarding America’s capacity, as well as willingness, to commit to Japan’s security have flourished through the Trump presidency and will persist for the foreseeable future.

At home, Abe will leave behind an even more ambiguous legacy. When he returned to the prime ministership in 2012, he had clearly learnt lessons from his first stint, especially on the economy. Instead of neglecting this vital area, he issued what became his signature economic policy — “Abenomics.” This initiative was based on three “arrows” of reform: monetary easing, fiscal expansion and structural reform. The first two arrows would defeat deflation and boost growth, perennial problems for the Japanese economy, while structural reform would put Japan on the path towards longer-term economic growth through a range of productivity-boosting reforms.

Abenomics has achieved some limited results. But Japan’s economic growth has been precarious and intermittent over the past decade. Whenever growth faltered, the risk of deflation returned immediately, most recently with the economic damage wrought by Covid-19. Japanese companies sit on vast savings, unwilling to invest. Employment has been high, but wages stagnant. Public debt is enormous.

On the third arrow, structural reform, Abe has achieved even less. Although women’s labour force participation has risen, and Abe has partially liberalised Japanese agriculture, progress has been incredibly slow. Labour shortages have not been effectively tackled by a limited and tentative change in Japan’s highly restrictive immigration policies. Japan’s two-tier labour market has delivered a privileged, protected minority and an insecure majority. Procrastination and hesitancy have been the order of the day.

Avoiding scandal has also proved a challenge. Since 2017, Abe has been caught up, personally, in three major scandals: two involving allegations that Abe or those close to him intervened in government decision-making to benefit the interests of friends and associates — the Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals — and one regarding the alleged use of public money to fund an annual cherry blossom viewing party for Abe and LDP supporters. Then, in June this year, two close political allies were arrested and charged for alleged vote buying in Hiroshima.

Tied to what has been a haphazard and sometimes ridiculed response to Covid-19 — Abe has been derided for his “Abenomasks” — these failures have begun to echo the mistakes of his failed 2006–07 tenure and led to a growing sense in Japan that his time was up. Constitutional revision was off the agenda, and then the Summer Olympics were cancelled, and political speculation began to centre on whether Abe was now a “lame duck” prime minister.

In truth, Abe’s longevity has exposed two key contradictions in his leadership. The first concerns ideology. Even as Abe has sought to reinvigorate Japan, he has been held back by his and his party’s conservatism. The goal of boosting the role of women in Japanese life has been undermined by the sexism of the LDP. This is the party, after all, with a long history of referring to women as “birth-giving machines” (umi kikai) and similar. The level of female participation in Japanese political life is woeful.

Similarly, the goal of tackling Japan’s ageing and declining population through immigration has been undermined by xenophobia within the LDP, as illustrated by deputy prime minister Taro Aso’s “single-race nation” comments early this year and Abe’s own problems with Japan’s history in Asia and his long association with far-right organisations such as Nippon Kaigi.

The second contradiction concerns power. Even as Abe has dominated Japanese politics and concentrated authority within his office, his capacity to shape events seems to have shrunk. This is partly due to Abe’s own ideological constraints and corruption scandals, but it also points to the strength of the historical winds buffeting Japan. Internationally, the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States have upended seventy years of generally stable strategic security. This is compounded by the rise of populism, protectionism and authoritarianism around the world since 2008, not to mention the global coronavirus pandemic this year. Domestically, Japan’s ageing population and the country’s various economic maladies appear beyond the ability of Japan’s political establishment to solve. A key part of the problem is a gerrymandered electoral system that systemically benefits older rural voters over younger urban ones and thus, unsurprisingly, prioritises the status quo over change.

Abe’s ultimate legacy, therefore, will be complex and contradictory rather than simple or self-evident. But what does this mixed record say about Japan’s future? The immediate problem concerns Abe’s likely successor. Numerous candidates are jockeying for position inside the LDP. Three names stand out, but each has drawbacks. Shigeru Ishiba, a defence hawk, is relatively popular among the public but not within the LDP. Fumio Kishida has policy credentials and a sense of Japan’s international challenges, having served as foreign minister, but also lacks factional support within the LDP. Yoshihide Suga, an Abe loyalist, is the continuity candidate. He is widely credited with strong bureaucratic skills and seems to have the support of the LDP’s dominant faction. At seventy-one, however, he may only be a transitional leader.

The next lower house election is due by October next year. With this in mind, the Democratic Party for the People, or DPP, and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (two successors to the Democratic Party, itself a successor to the DPJ) recently agreed to merge, with the new party to become the country’s largest opposition force. But Japan’s opposition remains deeply divided, with some DPP figures declining to join the new party because of personnel and policy differences. Accordingly, the next prime minister may seek to call an early election to exploit these ongoing divisions and extend the LDP’s grip on power. Much will depend on whether the pandemic is kept in check and how its economic effects play out.

For all his longevity as prime minister and his substantial achievements, Abe leaves behind much unfinished business, internationally and at home. More significantly, perhaps, he departs politics suddenly and at a time of crisis. His immediate legacy therefore may simply be to add leadership instability to Japan’s many other challenges. •