The assassination of Shinzo Abe still hasn’t really sunk in, but the tremors are rippling across Japan and the world. He was shot from behind in a nation where firearm-related homicides are rare: in 2021, there was just one, compared with more than 20,000 in the US. It was an assault on democracy and an act of barbarism.
The Japanese media coverage has been wall-to-wall and generally fawning, reframing the legacy of a man who left office in 2020 under the shadow of scandals, with low public support. The reverential tone and self-censorship is reminiscent of declining press freedoms during Abe’s tenure in office, when critical news outlets such as the Asahi were subdued and the press corps was in thrall to power. It’s worth noting that much of the international media has also been overly respectful and restrained, veering towards hagiography.
So what was Abe’s real legacy – and might the landslide victory of his party in Sunday’s elections allow his vision to be realised more fully in the years to come?
Abe’s legacy is felt most keenly in foreign policy – and the contentious question of Japan’s status as an officially pacifist nation. The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, often consulted with his mentor, Abe, on international affairs. Abe was a powerful advocate of doubling Japan’s defence spending to 2% of GDP and, unbound by the protocols of office, became an outspoken critic of China and Russia and supporter of Taiwan, boldly declaring last December that Beijing should have no doubts about Japan’s response if China pursued military action against Taiwan. In drawing this red line, Abe was suggesting that the US and Japan would respond militarily, the first time since 1945 that a leading Japanese figure had threatened to take military action.
Abe transformed Japan’s security posture like no Japanese postwar prime minister before him. He created a national security council to coordinate government policies and responses, embraced new defence guidelines with the US, and passed major security legislation in 2015 that greatly expanded what Japan could do militarily in support of the US. Critically, this legislation enabled Japan’s prime ministers to sidestep the constitutional constraints on its formidable military forces embodied in article 9 of the 1947 peace constitution – written by occupying US forces.
The public has been wary of this more assertive security policy, although the mood may be shifting 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 a domestic agenda, Abe was best known for “Abenomics” (massive monetary easing, fiscal stimuli and structural reforms), his bold programme to revive the Japanese economy – but it has proven to be a meagre legacy. By 2017, it referred to little more than a branding strategy to generate a buzz rather than a blueprint for economic revitalisation. Indeed, when running to head the conservative Liberal Democratic party (LDP) last autumn, Kishida lambasted Abenomics as an abject failure.
An even less flattering legacy is the allegations of cronyism and a lack of transparency. Important and potentially embarrassing documents were reported to have been altered, hidden and sometimes shredded, impeding accountability. Abe’s effort at labour market reform was a potential gamechanger, but after it was revealed that he used questionable data to make his case in the Diet, he had to settle for very modest changes. There is also the subject of his denialism and downplaying of Japan’s historic misdeeds, especially regarding “comfort women” and forced labour, which inflamed grievances in nations that had suffered from Japan’s wartime and colonial exploits, making it difficult to pursue reconciliation and cooperation.
Paradoxically, despite his enormous stature and power, Abe left office without making much headway on Japan’s gathering challenges, especially the demographic timebomb of a rapidly ageing society. Critics such as Tobias Harris, in his biography The Iconoclast, accused Abe of squandering political capital on constitutional revision while ignoring the climate crisis.
No doubt Abe was proud that he presided over a rightward shift in Japan’s political centre of gravity – and it’s a shift that may well have accelerated over the weekend. Elections for the upper house of Japan’s parliament on 10 July gave Abe’s LDP a landslide victory – turnout was boosted by the shock assassination. Kishida now has the votes he needs to increase defence spending and, perhaps, also push ahead with Abe’s holy grail: revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Voters don’t regard constitutional revision as a priority, and hence Kishida campaigned on bread-and-butter issues such as how to help households cope with inflation. But Abe’s death, and the fact that Kishida won’t face elections again until 2025, clearly offer an opportunity for him to realise the dream.
Revision has always been about article 9, the clause in the constitution that bans war and maintaining military forces – one that leaves Japan’s self-defence forces’ position awkwardly ambiguous. Abe sought to insert wording to clarify the self-defence forces’s status and when he left office stated that his greatest regret was not being able to muster public support for revision. Abe was his own worst enemy, as the more he pressed ahead to whittle down constitutional pacifism the greater the public’s resistance became in response to his hawkishness.
Kishida is a moderate and so encounters far less backlash when he advocates Abe’s policy wishlist. Now he may be able to honour his mentor’s death. In this sense, the story of Shinzo Abe’s legacy – in Japan and across a fractious, divided world – may be far from over.
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