Shinzo Abe and Japan’s Revival

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in 2020.



Few of Japan’s post-war leaders have been as consistent as Shinzo Abe, the retired prime minister who was assassinated on Friday at the age of 67. Many will describe his legacy as “controversial,” which is true. But Abe’s gift to his country was to deliver the kind of controversy Japan needed when the country needed it.

When Abe came to power for the second time in late 2012, Japan seemed helpless. The economic miracle was long gone, the optimism of the Junichiro Koizumi era in the early 2000s had evaporated, and the trauma of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami was still fresh. Abe restored energy and national confidence to Japanese politics and government.

After a brief tenure as prime minister amid this malaise in 2006-2007, Abe returned to office with a promise to revitalize Japan’s ailing economy. Abenomics, as it was later called, consisted of three “arrows”. At his urging, the Bank of Japan would aggressively ease monetary policy. Tokyo would boost budget spending. And Mr. Abe would lead an economic reform and liberalization initiative.

Regardless of political merit – some arrows were more valuable than others – Abe’s overarching message was that Tokyo had not given up on restoring vitality to what was still the world’s third-biggest economy after the United States and China.

The reform arrow was more significant than many foreign observers believe. A burgeoning merger-and-acquisition boom that could untangle Japan Inc. from cobwebs has resulted in large part from reforms implemented under Abe’s oversight. He also used trade deals to push reforms in long-stalled parts of the domestic economy, like agriculture. President Trump’s cancellation of the Pacific Trade Pact was a strategic mistake that hurt Abe’s reform project.

Abe understood that without a strong economy, he would not achieve his other key goal. This should normalize Japan’s strategic place in the world. The theme was that Japan will become a better ally of the US and other partners by strengthening its own military capabilities. As prime minister, he increased defense spending, breaking a long-standing 1% of GDP ceiling on military spending, and after stepping down as prime minister in 2020, he lobbied for more.

He also launched a debate about the pacifist clause in the Japanese constitution, which bans many military activities. Abe was unable to push for a change, although he did push for a “reinterpretation” that allowed greater Japanese involvement in Alliance military efforts. With China striving for regional dominance, this is no small breakthrough.

Even in this attempt, Abe forced Japanese politicians and voters to ask difficult questions about Japan’s place in the world. He played a similar role earlier this year when he tried to ignite a debate on whether Japan should engage in nuclear sharing with the US to ward off regional threats.

Abe was not always as effective an advocate of this policy as he could have been. His nationalistic tone, particularly in relation to some of Japan’s horrific wartime histories, fueled unnecessary tensions with Japan’s Asian neighbors.

But no country gets the platonic ideal of a philosopher-king as leader. If a country is lucky, it gets a skilled politician with a plan to address the country’s ills. Shinzo Abe was that leader for Japan, and his country and the world will miss his influence.

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