Since the assassination of Abe Shinzo, who was the longest-serving prime minister of Japan (in two terms from 2006 to 2007 and then from 2012 to 2020), commentators outside Japan have focused on his regional and global legacy. Many have noted that he was the progenitor of the “Indo-Pacific” idea, which dated back to a speech he gave in India in 2007, though he did not specifically mention the principle of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) until another address he delivered in 2018. The FOIP construction may indeed be Abe’s lasting imprint on the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. The ultimate seal of approval for the concept came from the United States which adopted it as its own, going so far as to use the term “Indo-Pacific” in renaming the American armed forces command and launching a flagship economic framework for the region.
But before he was preaching about the FOIP, Abe was focused on promoting his domestic economic plan, dubbed “Abenomics”, which he linked to his desire for Japan to play a more prominent role in the world. The Abenomics suite of policies were characterized as three arrows, pointed imagery that attracted not a few derisive comments about what at first seemed to be a fuzzy agenda – fiscal expansion, monetary easing and structural reform. The immediate goal: to boost domestic demand and GDP growth, while raising inflation to above 2 percent. The challenge: coping with the implications of Japan’s ageing demographics, particularly its flagging productivity.
With the first two arrows, Abe arguably managed to shoot straight – and garner some results. The fiscal stimulus and monetary easing in tandem were meant to break the economy out of its deflationary doldrums, pushing GDP growth out of its meandering flatness and up to 2 percent, while pulling inflation up to 2 percent. In 2009, Japan was wallowing in a deflation rate of 1.4 percent, but between 2013 and 2019 managed to achieve an inflation rate of nearly 1 percent. Abe had his ally Kuroda Haruhiko, the governor of the Bank of Japan, for his dogged determination to stick to easy-money policies, even as other major developed economies were unwinding or reining in their post-global financial crisis quantitative easing. The pump priming had consequences – Japan’s public debt has climbed to over 200 percent of GDP, the highest of any developed economy. In April this year, Japan’s inflation did finally rise above the longstanding 2 percent target, helped by the increase in energy and food prices prompted by the Ukraine war and supply-chain constraints.
From the launch of Abenomics, the third arrow – implementing structural reforms – was rightly identified as the hardest shot to set off and the most likely to miss the necessary targets. The Abe government aimed to slash business regulations, liberalize the labor market and agricultural sector, cut corporate taxes, expand trade partnerships, and increase workforce diversity. The latter goal inspired a portmanteau program of its own – “womenomics”, a plan to raise the workforce participation rate among women from 68 percent to 73 percent by 2020. To this end, the government required companies to increase the number of women in management, setting the goal of a third of senior positions by 2020 but later reducing that to a more manageable 15 percent.
“His government demonstrated leadership in two key areas which no prior postwar administration was willing to tackle: corporate governance and womenomics,” wrote Kathy Matsui, one of the leading advocates in Japan for women’s empowerment in the workplace, in a tribute to Abe posted on LinkedIn. “On the former, introduction of the Stewardship Code and Corporate Governance Code were critical to protecting minority shareholders’ interests and driving a greater focus on [environmental, social and governance] ESG principles. On the latter, there’s obviously work to be done in promoting more women leaders, but it was the first time the government focused on gender diversity as an imperative for economic growth.”
On these two fronts, Abe’s government aimed to address two longstanding deficiencies in Japan’s flawed single-dominant-party democracy – the rights of small investors in a market where corporate governance has not been known to meet global best practices, and the rights of women in a society in which cultural norms and rules have hampered their advancement (Japan has consistently ranked low on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, coming in at 116th among 146 countries in the newly released 2022 report, the lowest of the major advanced economies).
As for expanding trade partnerships as a way to drive new growth, Abe was particularly successful. His government led the way in picking up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact soon after taking office in 2017. Abe convinced the other 10 remaining signatories to regroup and conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force in the ratifying countries at the end of 2018. Japan was one of the early beneficiaries of the pact. Tokyo was also involved in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the ASEAN- and China-led trade arrangement which was signed in November 2020 and came into effect at the beginning of 2022.