Shinzo Abe Cast Japan in a Leading Role on the Global Stage

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended one of the most notable political careers in modern Japanese history. Abe was a political phoenix, rising from the ashes of a failed first term as prime minister in 2006-07. He returned five years later, serving from 2012 to late 2020, reshaping Japanese foreign and domestic policy. His death removes the leading voice on Japan’s role in the world and raises questions about the future of not only Japanese politics but society as well.

The last time a major Japanese figure was assassinated was in 1960, when the leader of the Japan Socialist Party was attacked by a youthful ultra-nationalist during a speech in Tokyo. Abe, 67, campaigned for the Liberal Democratic Party in Nara, the ancient capital in central Japan known more for its tame deer and historical landmarks than for political activism.

His attacker is said to be a former member of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces, the Japanese Navy. Police arrested the 41-year-old suspect, identified as Tetsuya Yamagami, a Nara resident. In a country where gun crime is almost unknown, the shock of the assassination prompted an uncharacteristic outburst of grief on Twitter.

Abe’s legacy has not been surpassed by any Japanese politician since the 1950s. He came from a political dynasty – the son of a foreign minister and the grandson of a prime minister who had helped found the LDP. The legacy of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, once suspected by Americans as a Class A war criminal for his activities in China during World War II, helped stoke accusations from the left that Abe was a nationalist at heart to remilitarize Japan, rewrite history and undermine Japanese democracy.

But although Abe was a staunch anti-Communist, he was much more committed to revitalizing Japan’s role in Asia and the world by making it a leader of the liberal bloc of nations. He was the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit Pearl Harbor and address Congress in 2016. He led the formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue linking Japan with the US, Australia and India. Abe formulated the concept of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” that has been adopted by both the Trump and Biden administrations. When President Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe salvaged the FTA and pushed it through with the 11 remaining signatories.

On questions of constitutional reform, critics accused Abe of rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution. That was an exaggeration, but he removed post-war restrictions on Japan’s ability to work with allies and partners, including by allowing the export of defense weapons and affirming the right to engage in collective self-defense. At the same time, he increased the Japanese defense budget and allowed the military to modernize with F-35 fighters and new helicopter carriers.

Defending international liberal values, Abe sought to give Japan a leading global role. He argued that international law and norms of peaceful cooperation are vital to the Indo-Pacific region, and challenged China’s “make makes right” approach to regional disputes. In promoting the Quad idea, Abe forged ties with India and Australia and was the first foreign leader to meet Mr. Trump after his election. He turned to the organization of the North Atlantic Treaty and revived relations with Great Britain. All of these actions helped forge a workable liberal bloc in Asia.

Even after leaving office, Abe remained Japan’s most influential politician and dominated foreign policy thought. In February, he publicly pondered whether Japan should harbor US nuclear weapons, touching on the third rail of Japanese politics. In April, he called on the US to commit to defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. In doing so, he became the first former leader of a major nation to so openly support Taiwan, arguing that Washington’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity was untenable.

Abe’s achievements in foreign policy were not matched domestically. Its economic reform program boosted Japan’s stimulus spending and aimed to end deflation, but regulatory reform has been patchy and Japanese growth has remained largely flat. Japan has done little over its years to close the artificial intelligence gap with China or develop quantum computing or 5G telecommunications.

Nonetheless, Abe was unique in shaping a sweeping package of economic reforms in a country long known for eschewing any moves that would strengthen market forces. He also tackled once-ignored issues like improving job opportunities for women and attracting skilled immigrants to help Japan’s flat labor pool.

A product of Japan’s serious political elite, Abe learned to be a showman on the global stage. Behind his turn to Western-style politics was a commitment to reclaiming his country’s place among the leading nations to, as he puts it, “defend freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. It is a valuable legacy that he is leaving to his country and to the world.

Mr. Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and a former associate professor of Japanese history at Yale.

Review and Outlook: Strategic ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense has long been US policy, but President Biden has now – four times – declared his willingness to engage militarily in the country’s defense. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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