This focus on the economy helped deliver Abe a solid upper house election victory in the summer of 2013, giving him three “golden years” in which he did not need to face the voters. The message discipline that his government practiced was made possible, in part, by Abe’s patient efforts to build out his leadership team to help him push forward his other policy priorities and handle any crisis that might suddenly arise. He chose experienced figures such as Yachi Shotaro to handle foreign affairs in the cabinet office, put together a new National Security Council, developed the ability to choose senior bureaucrats through a centralized personnel office, and relied on the able Suga Yoshihide (who would succeed him in 2020) to be the day-to-day face of the administration in dealing with the press.
When we look back on Abe’s legacy, this successful management of prime ministerial leadership that enabled him to stay in office for eight years when the previous six leaders (including himself) had each lasted only about one year has to be high up on the list of his major achievements. It has already influenced how Kishida Fumio, the current prime minister, is managing his government.
With this focus on the economy and with key personnel in place, Abe then pivoted back to security affairs. Having placed an ally in the top position at the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and like-minded experts on an advisory body, Abe announced in July 2014 that the cabinet was henceforth reinterpreting Article 9 of the constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Whereas before it could only maintain the military capacity necessary to defend itself, it could now plan to assist an ally in a situation where its failure to do so would leave the nation’s existence in jeopardy. This change would enable Japan to begin planning to work even more closely with the United States military than before to prepare for contingencies in the immediate region and beyond.
This cabinet decision and the implementing legislation and foreign policy reorientation that followed are no doubt the most important policy changes implemented during Abe’s years in office. How we evaluate his legacy and what he might have accomplished had he lived depends on what he did and did not get done by making these modifications.
It is important to note that he did not manage to revise the constitution, which was his goal. In fact, by pursuing this work-around, he took the air out of the pressure that was building for a constitutional revision to accomplish the same purpose. From that point on, while Abe continued to advocate for a change in Article 9 that would recognize explicitly that the existence of the Self-Defense Forces was constitutional, he stopped pushing so insistently since that change would be symbolic. He just needed to wait for the right moment.
The reinterpretation, nevertheless, allowed Abe to focus more on Japan’s foreign policy strategy in the region. The rise of China, North Korea’s nuclear program, and (after 2016) the unpredictability of the United States under Donald Trump, all called for a reorientation of Japanese policy away from an exclusive reliance on the United States as an alliance partner. Trump, by threatening to pull US military forces out of Japan if Tokyo did not pay its way and by actually withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, demonstrated to the Japanese and others in the region that they needed to develop a regional strategy for dealing with a more assertive China. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) was Abe’s answer to this challenge.