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A leader who loved Japan

How Shinzo Abe and his country resisted stagnation

Shinzo Abe was Japan’s youngest postwar PM when he took office in 2006. As leader of the new generation of rightists, he sought to break what he considered a stale postwar system and reinvigorate Japan. 

His first term was a one-year failure, and he would have to wait five years to stage a comeback and try again, becoming Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister in the process. Both times chronic illness forced him from the pressures of the top job. Still an active force in politics, his shocking assassination marks another, grimmer postwar first. 

His was an elite political family (as explored in Tobias Harris’ The Iconoclast, the definitive biography in English). His father served as Foreign Minister, and his paternal grandfather was an MP too, imprisoned for opposing the wartime government. His maternal grandfather on the other hand was Kishi Nobusuke: viceroy of Japan’s quasi-Stalinist Manchurian colony, wartime Minister of Munitions, and — after a spell in prison during the American occupation — Prime Minister. 

Kishi was a nationalist who chafed under the American-imposed constitution and security treaty. By accepting Japan’s place as a junior ally, though, he successfully revised the security treaty in Japan’s favour. The battle to ratify it unleashed enormous protests and ended his premiership. In a sign of his respect for his grandfather, the teenage Abe defended the Treaty against his teacher.

Abe admired and regularly referred to the nationalist Meiji Restoration that created modern Japan and — by virtue of its newfound strength — defended its independence during the era of high imperialism. The Meiji state was a synthesis of Western systems and a new nationalism, built on the ancient institution of the emperor. It died with the surrender in 1945, and it was under the postwar system dominated by Kishi’s rivals that Japan recovered and outgrew the European powers. 

For rightists like Abe, the pacifist constitution and consensus it symbolised stopped Japan from taking the proper place among nations that the Meiji state had won for it. The end of the economic miracle and increasing threat of China and North Korea were for them further evidence that things had to change. But while American planners had also long come to regret the pacifist idealism of their predecessors, the public never quite gave Abe the mandate to revise the constitution. That will be up to Kishida and his new supermajority. 

Beginning with Abe’s own disastrous first term, Japan was governed by a revolving door of 1-year PMs until he returned and broke the cycle. His reimposition of order was politically impressive, but for a nation still reeling from the economic legacy of the Lost Decade(s) and the triple trauma of the 2011 earthquake-tsunami-meltdown, it would not have been enough. 

Japan’s stubborn deflation was tamed

Abe embraced and implemented an economic program that would go on to bear his name — Abenomics. This consisted of “Three Arrows”: extremely loose monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms. The sums injected into the economy were immense. Abenomics didn’t achieve all of its aims, and the third “arrow” was implemented with less gusto. But Japan’s stubborn deflation — a scourge easily forgotten as the world is battered by rising prices — was tamed, and unemployment halved. 

On administration Abe and his allies strengthened the government’s control over the bureaucracy — Japan’s First Estate since the Meiji Restoration — and reshaped it by establishing new bodies like the National Security Council. Many much showier politicians have been broken by the blobs they have sought to smash.

Abe’s Japan demonstrated its importance as an international actor. When America abruptly abandoned its own plans for an allied trade framework, Tokyo played a key role in reviving it as the CTPP. Anglophone liberals criticised his “golf diplomacy” schmoozing with Trump, but Japan survived an unpredictable POTUS with deep grievances regarding Japanese trade dating back decades, and the costs of America’s Asian alliance. 

The development of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategic concept and revival of the Indo-Australian-Japanese-American “Quad” were key achievements in the context of Chinese assertiveness. Though constitutional revision eluded him, Abe implemented a “re-interpretation” that would allow Japan to assist allies under attack, making Japan a more reliable friend.

There were failures too. Despite many meetings with Vladimir Putin he made no progress over the northern territories seized in 1945, still held by Russia today. Perhaps it was naive to try. While India declared a day of national mourning and Taiwan lowered flags to half-mast, relations between Tokyo and Seoul remain abysmal, still scarred by the history of Japanese imperialism. 

A 2015 agreement that aimed to settle the issue of the Korean “comfort women” — women conscripted into military prostitution — failed, for lack of broad Korean support. Japan has issued apologies for its wartime crimes, and under Abe too, but his picking at their details, attacks on historical “masochism”, and firm belief that Japan could not and should not “be [forever] predestined to apologise” brought their sincerity into question.

Despite Japan’s reputation for insularity and stasis, Abe sought to nearly double inward tourism — to strengthen the economy, but perhaps also to show off the country he was so proud of. Likewise the Olympics. As a celebration of Japan’s return to the world after war and occupation, the 1964 Tokyo games deeply moved the young Abe, and as Prime Minister he was instrumental in bringing them back. COVID sealed the country shut and denied him the games Tokyo should have been, but Japan’s place as a prime tourist destination and object of fascination seems unlikely to change. 

A nationalist who sought to strengthen his country

More permanently and importantly, “homogenous” Japan has accepted increasing economic immigration from Asia, a shift perceptible even to visitors popping into convenience stores. It will be many years before we see the result of this newest Japan, and whether it succeeds without the angsts of the post-imperial West. Like Abe’s campaign to improve the lot of working women, these were not policies adopted for the bleeding heart of a “citizen of the world”, but a nationalist who sought to strengthen his country.

With the 90s, Japan and its “Lost Decade(s)” became bywords for stagnation, her shrinking population a subject of morbid curiosity. Yet since the Great Recession, countries like Britain have lost their own decades, without the bullet trains, near-zero crime or affordable Tokyo flats to make up for it . Countries as famously romantic as Spain and Italy have fewer children than the hikikomori homeland. 

As with video games and giant girl groups, so too with stagnation

As with video games and giant girl groups, so too with stagnation — Japan isn’t unique, merely the first. Others seem to not notice their own, or breezily talk in historic analogy before being dumped without ceremony or legacy. Even that other postwar success, Germany — admirably reconciled with its neighbours, grown to become Europe’s most important economy — seemed both cynical and naive in its response to the Russian invasion, perhaps hamstrung by its own postwar complex.

Abe matters because he believed that his country mattered, and did much to make the rest of the world believe it too. He still had cards to play; but even cut short by a senseless murder the breadth of his legacy would be the envy of many statesmen.


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