The shock of seeing that BBC breaking news alert pop up on my phone remains vivid. “Japan’s Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe collapses after being shot at a campaign event.” At roughly three in the morning the loud (and iconic) alert, combined with the fact I was pulling an all-nighter, sounded more obnoxious, and ominous.
One can only relate further to my surprise when his death was announced later that day. He was taken away so quickly. Too quickly.
It was during a campaign speech at 11:30 AM (2:30 AM GMT) that Abe had been shot by Yamagami Tetsuya last Friday. Grieving the loss of his mother’s well-being, Yamagami shot Abe with his homemade gun. Abe was apparently connected to the colloquially known ‘Moonies’ church where Yamagami’s mother attended regularly. Aged 67, Abe tragically died in hospital.
Abe is the most memorable Japanese politician of the past half-century, as the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in post-war Japan. His legacy inspires and dismays.
He joined politics in 1993: his father Abe Shintaro was a career politician and former minister; his maternal grandfather, his inspiration, Kishi Nobusuke was prime minister during Japan’s turbulent days (even surviving getting stabbed six times following an unpopular reform). Later, he would have a short stint of being prime minister in 2006 (resigning due to health), then returning in 2012.
This time, stability was brought to the once capricious post of Japanese PM (there were 14 prime ministers since 1992) and stability continues to be a key part of Abe’s legacy. Abe again resigned in 2020, citing health reasons, though reasoning may be otherwise as Abe was enveloped in scandal. Abe, however, was still respected after this. Returning to lead his party’s largest right-wing faction, he continued to be an influential member of the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), and remained influential in Nippon Kaigi, a right-wing lobby group.
Likeable, though, is not the first impression one is to get when looking at Abe’s record: channelling energy into military policies few wanted, shambolic ‘Abenomic’ policies, and media manipulation do not spark fond memories.
Removing the restraints of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is a key part of his legacy. Article 9 is what binds Japan to being a pacifist nation, and Abe passed major legislation after being able to reinterpret the Article. Japan as a result can now do so much more to help her ally USA, and Abe thought this was an especially pressing issue given how boisterous China was over Taiwan. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the majority of Japan now is in favour of increasing military spending.
Abenomics was a case where the people did not get what they asked for. The first round of Abenomics intended to raise inflation through loose fiscal policy and negative interest rates, which had some positive impact in reviving stock markets, but the second round was repackaged policies worsening work-life balances, worsening gender inequality, and stagnating incomes. Eventually protest and dissent were present.
Undermining press freedom is then what may have caused his resignation in 2020 to have favourable coverage, despite Abe’s failures to improve the Japanese economy and myriad scandals. There were accusations of the LDP prioritising those who favourable reporters to have positions in NHK (Japanese state-run media; subduing critical outlets such as Asahi, and rigging interviews on TV. Foreign journalists have complained about ‘state pressure’ too.
Yet, Japan’s role in the global stage took great strides under Abe. The most favourable in his legacy is his work towards improving Japan’s relationships with her allies. Reinterpreting Article 9 strengthened her ties with the US. Abe also set up the Trans-Pacific Partnership linking Japan to USA and ten other regional economies, and demonstrated resilience and stewardship when Trump dropped out by continuing this as the CPTTP with the other countries. Abe was pivotal in the creation of the Japan-EU and Japan UK agreements, and revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, India and Australia. The Asian Development Bank received $110bn from Abe which improved Japan’s ties with emerging economies.
Resistance towards China was another part of his legacy. He advocated for a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific resisting China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative. His work with reinterpreting Article 9 is about resisting China to protect Taiwan. Abe’s strong suit was foreign policy which he splendidly improved.
His death has meant discussions on Article 9, which had been placed on the back foot, resurfaced. The Japanese more than ever are thinking seriously about its implications. His death means the Japanese and the world are reconsidering the importance of Japan internationally: Abe made himself popular amongst world leaders through his desire to make Japan a global player. Putin sent Abe’s family a letter of condolence himself, Tsai Ing-Wen described Abe as ‘a good friend of Taiwan’, Modi ordered a national day of mourning, ‘shocked and saddened beyond words at the tragic demise of one of my dearest friends.’ His death has caused the Japanese to re-evaluate how they view their politicians: typically reserved, they attended his funeral in masses.
Now I look at the same headlines again: it’s humility, not shock this time. This was a man who had grand visions for his country to shine on the global stage. Visions cut too short, too quickly.