Remembering Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Longest-Serving Leader

When Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, stepped down in 2020, he hadn’t quite achieved what he’d set out to. He resigned due to poor health with dire approval ratings over his government’s handling of the coronavirus including acting too late on lockdowns and a slow vaccine rollout, a struggling economy, and without success on his long-standing push to revise the country’s pacifist constitution.

Perhaps that’s why Abe, who remained one of Japan’s most influential politicians even after his resignation, was still working to rewrite his legacy. However, his efforts were cut short by Abe’s assassination on July 8.

Abe, who served two stints as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and from 2012 to 2020, was shot in the neck on Friday morning while giving a speech in the city of Nara in western Japan, where he was campaigning for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) ahead of Sunday’s legislative elections. Abe, who was 67 years old died at home in the late evening.

This brazen attack stunned the entire world and caused shockwaves in Japan.

“He was a political giant,” says Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “He has been a continued towering presence… His voice carried considerable weight.”

Abe continued to “set the agenda” for Japanese politics

When Abe left office in 2020, he told reporters that it was “gut wrenching” to leave many of his goals unfinished.

Abe was the grandfather of the Prime Minister and served from 1957 to 1960 as well as being foreign minister for his father from 1982 to 1986. “There’s no question” that he remained one of the most influential figures in Japanese politics, even after leaving office, says Tobias Harris, a longtime Japan watcher based in Washington, D.C. who wrote a biography about Abe. “He is the head of the largest faction, the head of the largest ideological bloc of his party. And he’s been trying to set the agenda in the way that even [current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida] has struggled to do.”

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Abe is perhaps more influential than ever, as he has not been bound to the confines of an elected office. “He was a powerful voice in the Liberal Democratic Party, and he wasn’t burdened by the power of being prime minister so I think he was much less restrained, and continued to advocate for his positions on security, and constitutional revision,” says Kingston.

“Over the past year or so he has enjoyed not being in power because he’s been unleashed. He can say what he wants,” adds Kingston. That “has limited Kishida’s room for maneuver.”

Abe rewrote Japan’s place in the world

Abe’s efforts to remake Japan will live in the memory. Kingston says he succeeded in “reviving Japanese confidence and projecting a more confident, upbeat Japan,” following an asset price bubble collapse in the early 1990s that threw Japan into a period of economic stagnation known as “the Lost Decades.” “During his tenure, tourism to Japan skyrocketed and Japan became cool,” says Kingston.

Abe played a significant role in the LDP’s success. Abe had led several wins for the party, including the return to power of 2012. Although the party was almost in continuous power since 1955 when it was founded, the Democratic Party of Japan (the centrist Democratic Party of Japan) ruled for three years starting 2009. “I think that he’ll be remembered as a politician who helped put a conservative stamp on Japanese politics,” says Kingston.

Abe was less successful in revising the post-World War II U.S. constitution. It renounces all war. Abe saw the changes as important to counter an increasingly belligerent North Korea and China’s growing military might, but he faced an ambivalent public and legislative roadblocks over amending the constitution. He did, however, raise Japan’s defense profile with alliance building and by leading his government to pass legislation in 2015 that allows Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time in 70 years.

Abe strengthened Japan’s relationship with the U.S., though it was unclear what benefits his notorious courting of former U.S. president Donald Trump brought Japan. New partnerships were also formed with other countries, such as Australia and India.

“He was sort of striding tall on the global stage, he appeared at the major meetings… he probably met more world leaders than 10 of his predecessors combined, so he was very active diplomatically,” says Kingston.

Not all of Abe’s diplomacy was successful, and his hawkish nationalism earned him enemies abroad. His term saw relations with South Korea fall to an almost unimaginable low, which was mainly due to historical grievances. The longstanding dispute over “comfort women”—girls and women forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels— escalated into a trade war. He was also unable to improve relations with China, and his advocacy for standing up to China’s military modernization rankled Beijing.

And despite Abe’s unparalleled power in modern Japanese politics, he was also unpopular with a lot of Japanese people. His signature “Abenomics” economic revival plans made marginal gains, many of them wiped out by COVID-19, and his tenure was marred by numerous corruption scandals. “He leaves a mixed legacy,” says Kingston.

Abe’s legacy will be long over Japanese politics, just as it was in his life. “I think the LDP will probably achieve a landslide victory [in Sunday’s elections] because of what happened today,” says Ichiro Asahina, a political analyst and the head of Aoyamashachu Corporation, a think tank. “People will be sympathetic to Mr. Abe, which means they will probably vote for the LDP.”

–With reporting by Mayako Shibata in Tokyo and Michael Zennie.

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