Jhe assassination of Shinzo Abe is still not fully understood, but the tremors are spreading in Japan and around the world. He was shot from behind in a country where gun homicides are rare: in 2021 there was just one, compared to more than 20,000 in the United States. It was an attack on democracy and an act of barbarism.
Japanese media coverage has been wall-to-wall and generally flattering, reframing the legacy of a man who left office in 2020 under the shadow of scandals, with little public support. The reverential tone and self-censorship recall the decline of press freedom during Abe’s tenure, when critical news outlets such as the Asahi were subdued and the press was in the grip of power. It should be noted that much of the international media has also been too respectful and restrained, veering into hagiography.
So what was Abe’s true legacy – and could his party’s landslide victory in Sunday’s election allow his vision to be realized more fully in the years to come?
Abe’s legacy is most felt in foreign policy – and the contentious issue of Japan’s status as an officially pacifist nation. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida often consulted his mentor, Abe, on international affairs. Abe was a vocal advocate of doubling Japan’s defense spending to 2% of GDP and, unbound by office protocols, became an outspoken critic of China and Russia and a supporter of Taiwan, boldly stating last December that Beijing should have no doubts about Japan’s response. if China pursues military action against Taiwan. By drawing this red line, Abe was suggesting that the United States and Japan would respond militarily, the first time since 1945 that a prominent Japanese figure had threatened military action.
Abe transformed Japan’s security posture like no postwar Japanese prime minister before him. It created a national security council to coordinate government policies and responses, agreed new defense guidelines with the United States, and passed major security legislation in 2015 that significantly expanded what Japan could to do militarily to support the United States. Essentially, this legislation allowed Japan’s prime ministers to circumvent the constitutional constraints on its formidable military forces embodied in Article 9 of the 1947 peace constitution – drafted by the occupying American forces.
The public has been wary of this more assertive security policy, although the mood may change due to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and growing recognition of the threats posed by China, North Korea and Russia in East Asia. Recent joint Russian-Chinese bomber and naval patrols around the Japanese archipelago have highlighted the changing risk environment.
In terms of the national agenda, Abe was best known for “Abenomics” (massive monetary easing, fiscal stimuli and structural reforms), his bold stimulus program for the Japanese economy – but it turned out to be a meager legacy. In 2017, he referred to little more than a branding strategy to generate buzz rather than an economic revitalization plan. Indeed, when he ran for leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) last fall, Kishida castigated Abenomics as a dismal failure.
An even less flattering legacy are allegations of cronyism and lack of transparency. Important and potentially embarrassing documents would have been altered, hidden and sometimes shredded, hampering accountability. Abe’s effort to reform the labor market was potentially a game-changer, but after it was revealed he used questionable data to make his case in the Diet, he had to settle for changes very modest. There is also the subject of his denial and downplaying of Japan’s historical misdeeds, particularly regarding “comfort women” and forced labor, which inflamed the grievances of nations who had suffered from the exploits of war. and colonials of Japan, making it difficult to pursue reconciliation and cooperation.
Paradoxically, despite his enormous stature and power, Abe left office without making much progress on Japan’s growing challenges, especially the demographic time bomb of a rapidly aging society. Critics such as Tobias Harris, in his biography The Iconoclast, have accused Abe of wasting political capital on constitutional review while ignoring the climate crisis.
There’s no doubt that Abe was proud to have presided over a rightward shift in Japan’s political center of gravity – and it’s a shift that may well have accelerated over the weekend. Elections to Japan’s upper house of parliament on July 10 gave Abe’s LDP a landslide victory – turnout was boosted by the shock assassination. Kishida now has the votes he needs to increase defense spending and, possibly, to move forward with Abe’s holy grail: revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Voters do not see the constitutional review as a priority, which is why Kishida campaigned on key issues such as how to help households cope with inflation. But Abe’s death and the fact that Kishida will not face elections again until 2025 clearly presents him with an opportunity to fulfill his dream.
The review has always focused on Article 9, the clause in the constitution that prohibits war and the maintenance of military forces – a clause that leaves the position of Japan’s self-defense forces awkwardly ambiguous. Abe sought to insert language to clarify the statute of the Self-Defense Forces and when he left office he said his biggest regret was that he could not win public support for the review. Abe was his own worst enemy, for the further he went to reduce constitutional pacifism, the greater the public resistance became in response to his warmongering.
Kishida is a moderate and therefore encounters far less backlash when he champions Abe’s political wish list. Now maybe he can honor the death of his mentor. In that sense, the story of Shinzo Abe’s legacy – in Japan and in a restless and divided world – may be far from over.