The political career of Shinzo Abe, one of the most prominent leaders in modern history of Japan, which began in the second half of the 19th century with the Meiji Restoration, is coming to an end. Its key periods were his two stints at the nation’s helm. The first lasted only one year (2006-2007). At the time, Shinzo Abe became the youngest Prime Minister in the history of modern Japan. The second has lasted for nearly 8 years – from the beginning of 2013 to autumn 2020. If durations of both consecutive terms are added together, it turns out that he has been the longest-ever-serving Prime Minister of Japan.
The author will try not to use any emotionally charged language to describe Shinzo Abe, the head of government of Japan – one of the few highly influential countries on the global political arena. With one reason being that his Premiership (especially the last period of it) coincided with the start of a radical transformation of the entire world order, which is happening (as is always the case) alongside cataclysms of global proportions.
It would, therefore, be difficult to pinpoint (true) successes or failures in the political career of the Japanese leader, who has been one of the key participants of the aforementioned process. In fact, the New Eastern Outlook has, on a regular basis, reported about the main decisions and actions taken by the Cabinet of Japan, headed by Shinzo Abe (who has reshuffled it on a number of occasions).
Still, the author would like to state that Shinzo Abe will continue to be viewed as a key figure in any future analyses of the aforementioned transformation, and, obviously, of any events within Japan during this process. Hence, it seems apt to include Shinzo Abe’s brief biography in this article.
Like almost all other members of the Japanese political elite, Shinzo Abe was born (in September 1954) to a family of government employees, spanning several generations (on his father’s as well as on his mother’s sides), who reached the upper echelons of power but not without some difficulties along the way. His father, Shintaro Abe, volunteered to become a kamikaze pilot during World War II. Fortunately, it ended before he could finish the required training (otherwise the current Prime Minister might not have come into this world). From 1982 to 1986, Shintaro Abe was the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan. His father (i.e. Shinzo Abe’s grandfather) served in the House of Representatives from 1937 until the year he died, 1946.
At the beginning of World War II, Nobusuke Kishi (Shinzo Abe’s maternal grandfather) was in charge of industry and commerce of Manchukuo (a puppet state of the Empire of Japan in Northeast China). After the war, he, as well as other members of the former Japanese government, was jailed for “Class A” war crimes. Seven of the accused were sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Nobusuke Kishi managed to avoid such a fate. In fact, he was never indicted or tried by the IMTFE. In 1948, he was released from prison owing to efforts of “a group of influential Americans” (members of the American Council on Japan) who had lobbied for his release as they viewed him “to be the best man to lead a post-war Japan in a pro-American direction”. Nobusuke Kishi was Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. During that period ,the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, which is still in effect, was signed.
At the end of 2018, Russia’s Sputnik News agency reported that, according to “declassified files on negotiations over the Kuril Islands held with the US in 1960”, Nobusuke Kishi “was going to discuss the possibility of Japan agreeing to obtain only two” (closest to Hokkaido), not four of the southernmost Kuril Islands from the USSR. In other words, the official border between Japan and the Soviet Union was to be set between Etorofu and Urup, in accordance with the Treaty of Shimoda (signed in 1855). Shinzo Abe also reportedly signaled that Japan would “settle for the transfer of just two of the four islands” in the past. Still, he has been unable to reach an agreement on the issue with Russia, which is probably not surprising as such a possibility was remote.
As for Shinzo Abe’s true success stories as the de facto leader of Japan, his key accomplishment has been ensuring stability in the nation’s political landscape for a substantial (for Japan) period of time. After all, annual (or even more frequent) changes to the country’s leadership is more of a norm rather than exception in modern Japan (i.e. since the Meiji Restoration). In fact, in 2007, young Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with a promising future in politics, fell victim to the aforementioned rule.
There have been recent reports stating that it was a flare up of chronic ulcerative colitis, which has reared its ugly head again nowadays, that forced him to quit as Prime Minister back in 2007. However, the author thinks that a number of scandals involving members of his Cabinet was the real reason behind his resignation then. At the time, the youngest Prime Minister in Japan’s modern history was also reportedly suffering from poor health. After Shinzo Abe had left his post in 2007, his political career was seemingly over (if the author recalls this period of Japan’s history accurately).
However, by autumn 2012, when a decision had to be made about who would head the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the early general election in December of that year, it turned out that Shinzo Abe had completely recovered by then, thus the still charismatic politician was selected as the LDP leader.
It was the right choice in the end, as the party with Shinzo Abe at its helm secured a decisive victory. During all subsequent elections of various importance, the LDP and Shinzo Abe himself continued to win convincingly.
Among key decisions and actions taken during Shinzo Abe’s nearly eight consecutive years as Prime Minister, the author would, first and foremost, like to focus on a number of measures (referred to by the neologism “Abenomics”) designed to jolt the Japanese economy “out of suspended animation” that had gripped it for more than two decades. One of its three strategies focused on monetary policy aimed at correcting the excessive yen appreciation. After The Plaza Accord was signed by France, West Germany, Japan, the United States and the UK in 1985 (the agreement was meant to reduce the US trade deficit with these nations), “the exchange rate value of the dollar versus the yen declined by 51% from 1985 to 1987”. In 1987, The Louvre Accord was concluded. It was designed “to stabilize international currency markets and halt the continued decline of the US dollar”. And in early 1988, the dollar “strengthened over the next 18 months”.
Initially, the Japanese economy responded well to the measures instituted by Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet (still, some of Japan’s key partners accused the government of currency manipulation). Afterwards, however, there have been a number of negative occurrences on a global scale, ranging from the China-US trade war to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incidentally, Japan has managed to deal with the Coronavirus crisis much better than its Western partners, which could have something to do with Shinzo Abe’s role as Prime Minister.
It is also worth noting that there have been attempts by the Japanese government to speed up the process returning the country to “normalcy”, which started back in the 1990s. Its key element is often tied to the need to remove limitations imposed on Japan by Article 9 (which has no analogues worldwide) of its pacifist Constitution adopted after World War II. This was meant to be the main aim of Shinzo Abe’s political career. But he was unable to proceed with his plans because a substantial number of Japanese people have expressed concern “about reliving Japan’s pro-militaristic past” (after all, why not let the former occupier, the US, worry about national security).
It is also important to mention the increasingly prominent role played by Japan on the intentional political arena during Shinzo Abe’s Premiership. For instance, owing to his efforts, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP, which replaced the TPP after the United States withdrew from it under Donald Trump) was established. The pact was signed by 11 nations and Japan can be viewed as an informal leader among them.
Finally, the author would like to focus on certain aspects that are worth considering in connection with Shinzo Abe’s decision to resign as Prime Minister and head of the ruling LDP. His departure from the world of politics occurred before it will have most probably happened a year from now, in the normal course of events. After all, autumn 2021 will mark the end of Shinzo Abe’s 3rd term at the helm of LDP. His long stint as the leader, as mentioned before, is an exception rather than the norm for the world of Japanese politics. In fact, there have been discussions about him campaigning for yet another re-election (i.e. 3 more years in power).
Hence, the announcement that Shinzo Abe was resigning due to health reasons came as a surprise. In fact, the decision coincided with a fall in approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet to 36%. There have also been a number of scandals linked to the Prime Minister and his ministers recently. In general, “opinion polls in recent months have shown lackluster support for Abe”.
Leaders and governments of almost all of Japan’s external partners responded to the resignation of the Prime Minister of a country, which has been playing an increasingly influential role on the global stage, as mentioned before. Many have also expressed (to one degree or another) how sorry they were to see him leave his post and also wished him a speedy recovery. Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s reaction was particularly heartfelt. In fact, he and Shinzo Abe were supposed to take part in a very important video conference scheduled for September 10 ().
Initially, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian declined to comment on Shinzo Abe’s resignation. Perhaps, Beijing needed time to formulate an appropriate message. Eventfully, a statement was issued on August 29, offering “praise for the important efforts made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to get China-Japan relations back on track and achieve new developments”, and “wishing him a speedy recovery”.
A senior Trump administration official credited the US President and the Japanese Prime Minister with making the US-Japan alliance, and overall, the bilateral relationship, the strongest it had ever been. A meeting between US Secretary of Defense and Japan’s Defense Minister in Guam, on August 29 (which the author thinks took place at the US initiative) could not but generate interest. The two sides discussed “ways to deepen and expand bilateral defense cooperation”.
As for the future of Japan-Russia relations, it is essential to take into account the most important aspect – regardless of who become the next Prime Minister of Japan, an issue under discussion at present, the Northern Territories dispute will remain on the agenda of the Japanese government.
And both sides will need to continue dealing with and working on the issue, and striving for mutual understanding.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.