Why Shinzo Abe Will Continue to Lead Japan Even After Death

THe assassinated former Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. This not only shocked Japan but also created a massive political power vacuum. Although Abe resigned as leader in 2020, he had not only reasserted his role as the champion of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) conservatives, he also formally assumed the leadership of his party’s largest faction.

Meanwhile, as a highly respected global statesman, he enjoyed a bully pulpit through the domestic and international media, a powerful tool to influence Japan’s policy agenda. He made this clear in February, when he appeared on Sunday talk shows to discuss the possibility of sharing nuclear weapons with the United States. Over the first nine months of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s tenure, Abe appeared determined to force Kishida to defer to his policy ideas.

A sizable victory in Sunday’s upper house election could help Kishida’s stature grow, but it is not guaranteed that he will be able to consolidate power among the LDP’s factions by himself—particularly as the shock of Abe’s assassination fades and the public remembers its growing discontent over Kishida’s handling of rising inflation of household staples. That said, after another election in which opposition parties failed to dent the government’s majority—the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party lost seats—Kishida will face little pressure from the opposition.

However, while the LDP’s balance of power after Abe’s murder could remain fluid, Abe’s policy legacy could be even more secure. Abe’s influence may have been characterized even before his death by Margaret Thatcher’s quote: “There is no alternative.” While not everyone in Japan—or even within the LDP—agreed with Abe’s vision for the country or policy direction, there have been no better ideas on the table for plotting Japan’s course in politics, economic policy, and international relations.

Abe and his allies managed this feat through a long-term campaign to reform the central government—particularly national security institutions and the prime minister’s office, but also economic policy institutions like the Bank of Japan—and by reshaping the LDP into a more ideologically coherent, top-down party that would be more uniformly committed to Abe’s goals. Older, liberaler lawmakers died in retirement or were killed. New candidates recruited by Abe after his return in 2012, the so-called “Abe children,” were loyal to him and his policies. Potential challengers within the LDP that could have challenged his vision were co-opted, or even dismissed. But beneath it all was the power of numbers: Abe belonged to the party’s largest faction, and he could also call on the support of a broader, informal network of conservative lawmakers from across the party.

Abe, despite all his best efforts, was not widely supported. While he was able to reduce dissent in the LDP, it wasn’t enough to completely eradicate it. Abe encountered opposition regarding his trade, agriculture, and monetary policies. He was forced to invest considerable political capital because of some of the more controversial decisions he made. He was also unsuccessful in restarting off-line nuclear reactors. The stubborn disapproval of the public hampered his attempts. His six electoral victories from 2012 onward rested heavily on historically low turnout, particularly among independents, ensuring that the LDP’s electoral machine could deliver large majorities. His second tenure saw steady support, less from his policies but more due to the stability provided by the LDP.

Nevertheless, on this foundation, Abe built a durable policy legacy that not only survived his government—neither Kishida nor Abe’s immediate successor, Yoshihide Suga, has fundamentally departed from Abe’s blueprints for foreign or economic policy. This legacy could even survive Abe himself. The durability of Abe’s ideas may have less to do with his political power and more to do with Japan’s narrowing options in an increasingly risky Asia.

In foreign policy, Abe started from the premise that China’s rise meant that Japan had no alternative to keeping the U.S. committed to Japan’s defense and the security and prosperity of Asia more broadly. He repeatedly took risks to achieve this goal, including bolstering ties with Australia and India—the other members of an increasingly institutionalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad.” He also made shadow competition with China in Southeast Asia a top priority.

Although he had tried to stabilize relations with China while in office—Chinese President Xi Jinping had been scheduled to visit Japan in spring 2020—following his resignation, Abe became an increasingly vocal critic of China’s human rights violations and alarmed by the shifting military balance in the Taiwan Strait. Last year, he argued that “a Taiwan crisis would be a crisis for Japan” and called for the U.S. to end its strategic ambiguity policy. Both Suga and Kishida have followed Abe’s approach to foreign policy.

The continuities are no less apparent in economic policy, where “Abenomics” continues in all but name. Abe’s appointee Haruhiko Kuroda remains at the helm of the Bank of Japan (at least until next year), and the unconventional monetary easing policies launched during Abe’s tenure remain in place despite pressure on the yen. “Fiscal flexibility,” the Abe-era term for fiscal stimulus in the near term and consolidation in the medium to long term, remains the Kishida government’s stance, although thanks to Abe’s legacy there is now a greater tolerance for new deficit spending. Both Suga as Kishida used new industrial policies to encourage high-tech growth. While Kishida has hinted that his “New Capitalism” could be more focused on redistribution than Abenomics, thus far it has looked virtually identical to Abenomics.

Perhaps over time, as new challenges emerge Japan’s, leaders will drift away from Abe’s policy frameworks. The consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine may already be forcing the Kishida government to think differently about energy and economic security, and Kishida’s choice of a successor for governor of the Bank of Japan will determine whether the Abe-era easing policies continue under a new governor.

But the memory of Abe’s successes—not to mention continuing pressure from his acolytes—will make it hard for Kishida and future prime ministers to change course. After all, Abe’s lieutenants and the young lawmakers whose careers he boosted will remain in positions of importance for years to come—defending his legacy and pressing to complete the work left unfinished. Abe will be the only alternative for the near future.

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