Since he resigned as prime minister for health reasons, Abe Shinzo has generally been praised for his stewardship of Japan for nearly nine years over two terms. While the longest-serving Japanese leader will rank high among the more memorable and effective of his predecessors, he tended to be more popular abroad than at home, writes William M Tsutsui, the Reischauer Distinguished Professor of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. Abe offered an easy-to-grasp economic stimulus and reform program but never managed to hit a real policy homerun. New Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide will stay the Abe course but do so without the same flair.
Power shift – Abe (left) passes the baton to Suga (standing): Same policies, less personality (Credit: Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)
Post-mortems on Abe Shinzo’s prime ministership have inevitably started with the length of his tenure in office. Having followed a parade of 17 generally lackluster, unsuccessful, and short-lived leaders over the quarter century from 1987 to 2012, Abe’s nearly eight years in the Kantei (Japan’s version of the White House) are genuinely noteworthy. But the media focus on Abe’s endurance – rather than on his accomplishments – also underlines the lack of a signature achievement on the résumé of the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
Commentators have often ascribed Abe’s longevity to the lack of viable competition for leadership in Japan, either from within his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) or from an opposition profoundly divided and weakened since the collapse of the inept Democratic Party government after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Abe has, however, earned grudging respect, even from some critics, for restoring stability to Japan’s conservative political establishment and for articulating an ambitious (if perhaps unattainable) vision for Japan in Asia and the world.
Like few other Japanese politicians in recent decades, Abe appreciated the power of big ideas and grand gestures. Abenomics, the portmanteau given to his plan to jump-start the moribund Japanese economy, was hardly revolutionary in conception but was bold in asserting the power of its “three arrows” of fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reform. Abe’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” initiative, which sought a more assertive role for Japan in regional security and global affairs, captured a sense of aspiration (and of confidence) uncommon in Japan policymaking. And the decision to host the Olympic Games in Tokyo, despite an initial lack of enthusiasm from the Japanese people, showed Abe’s determination to stoke national pride and show the world that Japan still mattered.
Throughout his long term, Abe proved hard to pigeonhole. To many on the left, Abe was a hawk and a revisionist, intent on whitewashing Japan’s imperial past, moving beyond a history of postwar subservience to the United States, and restoring a patriotism long absent from the Japanese mainstream. But Abe repeatedly confounded those who would see him as a simple ideologue, showing a realist’s flexibility (especially in foreign policy) and a commitment to reform (notably on issues such as immigration and the status of women in Japanese society). Meanwhile, even as Abe vigorously advocated for a more proactive and independent Japan on the world stage, he also carefully cultivated a chummy, sycophantic relationship with his mercurial golf and alliance partner, Donald Trump.
The new Japanese prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, has vowed to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps. Yet the mantle that Abe has passed is an ambiguous one, not wholeheartedly revisionist or thoroughly reformist or consistently pragmatist. Although often portrayed as a rigid nationalist and closet authoritarian – Trump strategist Steve Bannon once remarked that “Abe was Trump before Trump” – Abe’s greatest (and most underestimated) strength may well have been his ability to pivot, to accommodate and capitalize upon unexpected change.
His leadership in picking up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after American’s abrupt withdrawal from the negotiations was shrewd and effective. His pirouette from the Obama presidency through a presumed Hilary Clinton victory in 2016 to the new Trump administration was executed more nimbly than any other world leader who faced the same challenge. Even Abe’s handling of the inconvenient and constitutionally delicate abdication of the Heisei Emperor (Akihito), who made an unprecedented end run directly to the Japanese public to force the issue, turned out to be remarkably smooth.
Abe could certainly be brash when he needed to be, as when he became the first world leader to dash to Trump Tower after the US election of 2016. In his resignation speech at the end of August, however, he struck a reflective and apologetic note. In focusing on where he fell short – stating that “many policies are still halfway toward realization” – Abe seemed to acknowledge that he had failed to deliver a defining accomplishment during his two terms and eight years at Japan’s helm.
In this, somewhat surprisingly, Abe was an exception among Japan’s long-serving postwar prime ministers. His conservative predecessors Yoshida Shigeru (who served two terms between 1946 and 1954), Sato Eisaku (1964–1972), and Koizumi Junichiro (2001–2006) also struggled to manage an asymmetrical relationship with Washington, navigate the nation through social and economic change, and address the postwar burdens of Japanese history and memory. Yet all of them left office with high-profile triumphs to anchor their legacies.
Yoshida, a career diplomat nicknamed “One Man” for his independence and obstinacy, stewarded Japan through most of the US occupation, the enactment of the so-called “MacArthur Constitution” in 1947, the negotiation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and Japan’s postwar return to sovereignty. Stridently anti-leftist and deeply devoted to preserving the Japanese monarchy, Yoshida was nonetheless a consummate pragmatist and genuine internationalist who believed that even a defeated country could still “win the peace”. In what has come to become known as the Yoshida Doctrine, he charted an enduring grand strategy for postwar Japan: rely on the United States for the nation’s security (sacrificing Japan’s foreign policy independence in the process), minimize spending on the military, and focus single-mindedly on economic growth.
Sato (who, epitomizing the inbred world of Japan’s modern political elites, was Abe’s great-uncle) managed Tokyo’s critical relationship with Washington through a time of considerable stress, from riots on Japanese university campuses against American military and political influence, to the unexpected “shocks” of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the floating of the dollar. Sato enshrined Japan’s postwar “nuclear allergy” in policy with his “Three Non-Nuclear Principles”, for which he subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Sato was no wide-eyed idealist, and to gain the historic reversion of Okinawa to Japan, it was later revealed, he secretly promised Washington that nuclear warheads could be returned to the island in case of emergency.
Koizumi was a self-styled maverick with a reformist agenda and a charismatic media presence that won him high poll numbers at home and admirers abroad. Like Abe, whose first term as prime minister followed Koizumi’s busy tenure, “Lionheart” (as he came to be called) pushed for structural reform of the economy and a more forceful security policy. He also had the reputation of a staunch revisionist, visiting the nationalist Yasukuni Shrine six times during his premiership, and chilling relations with Beijing in the process. Koizumi waged war against entrenched interests in the LDP and enjoyed dramatic (and unexpected) success in privatizing the bloated and politicized Japanese post office.
Abe, along with Yoshida, Sato and Koizumi, will doubtless be appraised as a pivotal figure in the history of postwar Japanese politics. Like Yoshida and Sato, Abe demonstrated a canny pragmatism during a time of instability and rapid change, deftly managing both Washington and a Japanese public wary of remilitarization and resurgent nationalism. Like Koizumi, Abe affected a bravura that captured the world’s attention and commanded respect. Abe may have lacked “Lionheart’s” crowd-pleasing love of Elvis and swoon-inducing Richard Gere hair, but he set a new standard for Japanese prime ministers when he appeared at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as Super Mario.
Yet Abe leaves no doctrine likely to endure for decades, no medal from the Norwegian Nobel Committee or territorial trophy to claim as his own, no stunning achievement such as the toppling of Japan Post. Abe’s long-cherished goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution (and especially its war-renouncing Article 9) stirred discussion but never gained momentum. His hope of restoring Japan as a “normal country”, an aspiration shared by the nation’s conservative leaders for decades, may now seem closer at hand (with the endorsement of “collective self-defense”) but has not been demonstrably attained. Efforts to conclude a much-belated World War II peace treaty with Russia ended in frustration, as did attempts to resolve finally the festering issue of Japanese kidnapping victims in North Korea.
Abe’s record in domestic policy was even less inspiring than his performance in foreign affairs. Abenomics did banish the specter of deflation but never delivered on its promises of meaningful structural reform. “Womenomics” and the goal of creating a “Japan in which women can shine” made for great headlines but did not dramatically move the needle on gender equality in Japanese workplaces. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which Abe may well have imagined as a crowning achievement of his leadership, unraveled during the first wave of the global pandemic. To add insult to injury, although Japan has weathered Covid-19 better than almost any other developed nation, credit has gone overwhelmingly to the fastidious habits of the Japanese people rather than to the Abe government’s policies.
In the weeks since Abe announced his retirement, encomia for Japan’s most durable prime minister have filled the global media. The outpouring of international praise is a valuable reminder of another way in which Abe’s long tenure failed to meet its promise and deliver a signature achievement, either for Abe himself and or for Japan. In the end, Abe Shinzo impressed the world much more than his own people, who remained cynical about their political leadership and largely detached and passive in the political process.
At a historical moment when electorates in the United States and many European countries appear hopelessly polarized and profoundly dissatisfied, Japan’s indifferent and complacent populace may seem an enviable alternative. But it is hardly the most optimistic sign for the future of Japanese democracy. That Prime Minister Suga seems unlikely to build upon Abe’s vision or prove more successful in firing the imagination of the Japanese public is far from reassuring either. For all the good of the past eight years of a strong leader in Tokyo, Japan’s fate will ultimately rest on engaging and inspiring a democratic nation of followers.
Dobson, Hugo. (December 2, 2016) “Is Japan Really Back? The ‘Abe Doctrine’ and Global Governance”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 47, issue 2, pp 199-224, Taylor& Francis, London, UK.
Harris, Tobias S. (August 2020) The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, Hurst Publishers, London, UK.
Hughes, Christopher W. (2015) Japan’s Foreign and Security Policy Under the ‘Abe Doctrine’: New Dynamism or New Dead End?, Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK.
Schaller, Michael. (December 4, 1997) Altered States: The United States and Japan Since the Occupation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
William M Tsutsui
Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University