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.