The Japan Shinzo Abe leaves behind
31 Aug 2020|

Shinzo Abe’s sudden resignation on health grounds ends the tenure of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. The country’s most internationally recognised statesman since 1945, Abe has been, among other things, the world leader most keen on playing golf with US President Donald Trump.

Though he leaves Japan with a still-weak economy, Abe has made his country stronger and more autonomous in matters of defence and foreign policy. Whoever succeeds him will likely continue on that path, which is good news for proponents of peace in East Asia and of the rules-based international order more generally.

Abe’s current term was set to end in September next year, but his approval ratings had fallen to historic lows, making another run for the premiership a non-starter. The manner of his departure, after nearly eight continuous years in office, thus reflects an old principle of political life. For a long-serving party leader who knows the end of his political career is nigh, it is better to set the terms of one’s own departure than be pushed out by dagger-wielding rivals.

Since his youth, Abe has suffered from ulcerative colitis, a debilitating condition that forced him to resign once before, in 2007, after serving one year as prime minister. That previous departure also coincided with serious political difficulties, making his return to power in 2012 all the more remarkable. Given two recent well-publicised hospital visits, Abe’s renewed health problems are likely genuine. And yet, with the Tokyo Olympics having been postponed to next year, it’s hard to believe that he would choose to step down now unless he also felt serious political pressure.

From an international perspective, Abe’s loss of popularity may seem surprising, given that his country has suffered fewer than 1,300 Covid-19 deaths and a smaller economic downturn than in the United States or most European countries. But Abe’s government has drawn criticism for erratic communication and a seemingly uncaring economic response to the pandemic. And, after so many years in office, accumulated scandals and a general weariness with the country’s unchanging leadership have caught up with him.

Moreover, there has been growing disappointment about the state of the economy and living standards. Abe’s much-touted economic program, known as Abenomics, has consisted of faster monetary expansion, some fiscal stimulus and talk of pro-growth structural reforms. But the results have been meagre, especially from a leader who has won three general elections and long enjoyed strong parliamentary majorities.

Abenomics was billed as a program to overcome deflation, accelerate economic growth, and—in a second phase—boost Japan’s birth rate. While prices have stopped falling, hopes of restoring mild inflation and wage growth have been dashed. While economic growth between 2012 and the current pandemic was slightly better than in the previous decade, that was largely owing to the absence of major shocks on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis or the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The birth rate remains flat.

To be sure, the Abe government has enacted some small, useful reforms, including a new corporate-governance code, better disclosure rules for companies, higher childcare spending and tighter limits on dangerously long overtime. But plans for deeper reforms to increase competition have either not materialised or been blocked by vested business interests. Nearly 40% of the workforce remains on short-term, precarious contracts, and although more women work, very few have broken through to leadership positions.

Abe has also failed to achieve his greatest ambition of all: revising Japan’s 1947 constitution to normalise the status of the country’s armed forces and remove the document’s famous pacifism clause (Article 9). The Japanese public remains opposed to such a change, and Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has commanded its strong parliamentary majorities in coalition with the centrist Buddhist group Komeito, which has pacifist roots. Because a constitutional revision requires a two-thirds majority in each house of parliament and a simple majority in a national referendum, Abe has never been able to realise his dream.

As for his legacy, Abe will be remembered as a traditionalist (in Japanese terms). Within the LDP, he leads a group of ‘new conservatives’ who advocate a strong state, central leadership, established values and—most of all—a more robust and autonomous foreign and defence policy. On these priorities, he has delivered.

At times, he has pursued a slavishly close relationship with Trump. But he has also sought to carve out a more autonomous role for Japan on issues like trade. In 2017, he led the effort to salvage the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from that deal. Japan has also negotiated a free-trade arrangement with the European Union and will shortly complete a parallel deal with the United Kingdom.

Abe has also strengthened Japan’s defence relationship with India. By emphasising a revisionist view of Japan’s wartime history, however, he has brought relations with South Korea—Japan’s closest neighbour and a fellow US security ally—to a new low following that country’s leftward turn.

The race among potential successors within the LDP has been covertly underway for several months. But it’s already clear that none of the leading contenders—Defence Minister Taro Kono, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, nor even Abe’s old rival Shigeru Ishiba—will want to soften the country’s foreign-policy stance. If anything, they may compete to appear even stronger on security issues, advocating more military spending, pre-emptive strike capabilities against North Korean missile threats, or tougher action against Chinese maritime incursions in the East China Sea.

No Japanese prime minister since the end of the American occupation in 1952 has been able to contemplate seriously any kind of rupture with the US. But, recognising that America has become a less reliable and cooperative ally, especially under Trump, Abe has prepared the ground for Japan to develop a more independent voice as it builds its own network of partners around the world. That strategy is here to stay.