How Japan’s Former Prime Minister Changed His Country


Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s career was set to end in September 2007. Forced to step down just a year into his term as Prime Minister after leading his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a disgraceful election defeat of the upper house in July 2007, Abe himself seemed to share the widely held view that his once promising political career was over.

But five years later he would be back at the top of the LDP, paving the way for a spectacular and unlikely return to the post of prime minister in December 2012. He would finally leave office in September 2020 after a record seven years and eight months as prime minister, after which he would begin the third act of his career, where his leadership of the largest faction of the LDP and his reputation as a leading global statesman gave him extraordinary power to influence the direction of the Japanese government.

Abe thus stood at the pinnacle of power in Japan when, on July 8, he was shot by two blasts from an assassin’s improvised shotgun while campaigning for LDP candidates ahead of upper house elections. of July 10.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s career was set to end in September 2007. Forced to step down just a year into his term as Prime Minister after leading his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to a disgraceful election defeat of the upper house in July 2007, Abe himself seemed to share the widely held view that his once promising political career was over.

But five years later he would be back at the top of the LDP, paving the way for a spectacular and unlikely return to the post of prime minister in December 2012. He would finally leave office in September 2020 after a record seven years and eight months as prime minister, after which he would enter the third act of his career, where his leadership of the largest faction of the LDP and his reputation as a leading global statesman gave him extraordinary power to influence the direction of the Japanese government.

Abe thus stood at the pinnacle of power in Japan when, on July 8, he was shot by two blasts from an assassin’s improvised shotgun while campaigning for LDP candidates ahead of upper house elections. of July 10.

Coming from a distinguished but controversial political family, it is perhaps unsurprising that he reached such heights. But Abe was never interested in power for himself. Entering politics in the 1990s, he inherited a mission from his grandfather and former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi: to lift the constraints imposed by the United States – with the help, in part, of the political class Japan – on Japan’s ability to wield power on the world stage, particularly its post-war constitution and “peace” clause which restricted Japan’s military power.

Entering politics in the early 1990s, as the end of the Cold War and the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble disrupted a complacent political establishment, Abe and his fellow young conservatives saw an opportunity to “[break] away from the post-war regime,” as he would put it in his first term.

The new conservatives wanted massive changes to the Japanese state. They wanted to strengthen the power of the prime minister, who (for most of the post-war period) had been hardly a “first among equals” in the cabinet. They also wanted to build a national security establishment, with a fully-fledged defense ministry and a national security council under the prime minister that would strengthen the government’s ability to manage crises. They wanted to limit the power of bureaucrats and backbenchers to pursue their narrow interests at the expense of the national interest. And they wanted to loosen the constraints that kept Japan from having a real military that could fight alongside the United States and other partners.

But it wasn’t until Abe’s stint in the desert following his resignation in 2007 that he developed what had been the missing piece of that agenda: economic power.

After taking over as prime minister in 2006, Abe admitted that his knowledge and experience of economic policy-making was limited – a critical flaw given that Japanese voters, like voters in other democracies, care primarily everyday economic problems. Back on the benches of his party and in opposition after the LDP’s historic defeat in 2009, Abe began to think more seriously about the problem of Japan’s economic stagnation.

Teaming up with renegade economic thinkers who wanted the Bank of Japan to tackle protracted deflation more aggressively, he and his advisers developed what would become Abenomics, a completely new”, as well as an expansionary fiscal policy. and a host of industrial, labor and regulatory policies aimed at shifting production to high-tech sectors and slowing the decline of the Japanese workforce.

While critics would accuse Abe of opportunistically using Abenomics as a fig leaf for his other political ambitions, the fact is that it was a serious, sustained and flexible attempt to tackle the challenges of Japan’s growth. An expansive program, it was not without its contradictions – and it was by no means an unqualified success – but it nevertheless signaled a maturity in Abe’s thinking. Whereas as a junior legislator he had been obsessed with military power and some of the most symbolic legacies of the American occupation of Japan, by his second term as prime minister he had learned he could not neglect the economic basis of national power. To secure Japan’s future in a more competitive world, the Japanese economy would need a new basis for growth.

Thanks in part to Abenomics, which at least reversed years of stagnant wages; boosted corporate profits, tax revenues and tourist flows to record levels; and reduced unemployment to record levelsAbe was able to end the revolving door of short-lived premierships that followed his first premiership and win election after election in his second administration.

His durability in turn allowed him to pursue long-desired ambitions to create a National Security Council, concentrate bureaucratic staff decisions in the Prime Minister’s office, reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense, and even launch a serious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to amend the constitution.

It also freed him to pursue an ambitious foreign policy that not only strengthened US-Japan relations, but also deepened its ties with regional partners, such as India and Australia – laying the foundation for quadrilateral dialogue. on security – as well as with the main countries of Southeast Asia. . It also allowed Japan to assume a leadership role in furthering regional and global economic integration following the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Although his successes were weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which reversed economic gains and exposed the limits of reforms that strengthened and centralized the Japanese state, when he resigned in August 2020 for health reasons. personal, he left to his successors a blueprint for wielding power at home and abroad which hitherto has not been surpassed.

In the meantime, he had also acquired for himself the political acumen and stature that made him a formidable political power until the day of his death – a leader who was about to play a central role in the debates at come on fiscal and defense policy. Abe’s death leaves a huge void for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his colleagues to fill.

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