Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead last week at an election rally. Despite his sudden and shocking death, Abe leaves a legacy for Japan and the world at large. He was Japan’s longest-serving leader in the post-war era – as prime minister from 2006-2007 and 2012-2020 – and was also president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Abe was exceptional among Japanese politicians. He was committed to national policy reforms, particularly regarding the Japanese budget. Abe appointed the tax policy expert Koji Omi, who led delicate budget-balancing acts through spending cuts, as his first finance minister.
Born after World War II, Abe was the country’s youngest post-war prime minister. He regularly took stances that were on a different side of history, including denying the Japanese government’s responsibility for women and girls’ coercion into sexual slavery during World War II and supporting revisions to Japanese history textbooks that reflected a more positive view of the country’s modern history.
He and other conservative politicians promoted bills to encourage patriotism and nationalism in Japanese schools.
Abe and his party also led reform through many economic policies, the most famous of which was known as “Abenomics”. This approach had three key points, or “arrows” – aggressive monetary policy, fiscal consolidation and structural reforms.
This unique policy reform was a mix of reflating government spending and a growth strategy for the Japanese economy. Japan’s nominal GDP growth was steady during Abe’s tenure amid Abenomics, and the government’s relative debt as a percentage of national GDP stabilised for the first time in decades. Japan’s unemployment rate dropped to the lowest among Group of 7 countries in 2019.
Abe made a public show of pushing for gender equality and women’s rights. He publicly advocated for women’s empowerment, raising the issue in 2015 at the UN General Assembly by vowing policy reform to achieve gender equality in Japan. He set a goal of having 30 per cent of leadership positions held by women by 2020, with Japan pledging about 42 billion yen (US$450 million) towards that goal.
Abe attempted to promote his idea of a society where women “shine” by taking multiple actions to boost women’s education and empowerment. At the 2016 G7 summit, which Japan hosted in Shima, Abe pushed for the leaders’ endorsement of the G7 Guiding Principles for Building the Capacity of Women and Girls, and the Women’s Initiative in Developing STEM Careers.
In 2016, Abe presented Japan’s plan to offer technical training to 5,000 women and assist in the education of 50,000 female students. In addition to Abe promoting the capacity-building bill among G7 countries, Japan has hosted every edition of the World Assembly for Women since 2014.
Abe established a strong presence in shaping Japan’s foreign policy. His hardline stance against the North Korean regime was a message of not putting up with bullying in the region by the pariah state. He promoted good diplomatic relations in Southeast Asia. Abe also attempted to improve relations with China, trying to move beyond lingering sentiments from World War II.
He gained respect in Taiwan among local politicians seeking greater distance from Beijing. His popularity in Taiwan came in part from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi’s friendliness towards the island as well as his great-uncle Eisaku Sato’s visit in 1967, making him the last Japanese prime minister to go to Taiwan during his time in office.
While Abe made moves to renew diplomatic relationships with Japan’s former enemies, at the same time he pushed to strengthen the country’s geopolitical positioning and military capabilities. He sought to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution that he and other conservatives felt was imposed on the country by the United States and its allies in 1946.
Perceiving a threat from a rising China, Abe’s administration reinterpreted the constitution to permit a greater role for the Self-Defence Forces in addition to seeking to change Article 9, which renounces war and bans Japan from maintaining the potential for war.
Japan also joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – which Abe initially proposed in 2007 – creating an informal alliance with the US, India and Australia to protect their common interests in the Pacific amid China’s growing influence and military presence. Abe also pushed to improve Japan’s relationship with India in addition to Quad participation.
Abe played an important role in driving reform within Japan as well as building international alliances and collaboration. From pushing for economic growth to taking centre stage at international forums such as the G7, he broke with previous Japanese prime ministers and led from the front.
He was a transformative force within Japan and beyond. From walking a fine line in managing relations with China to playing a key role in the founding of the Quad, Abe showed diplomatic dexterity in navigating the complex geopolitical landscape of the Asia-Pacific.
For the Japanese people, Abe will be remembered as the leader who showed the way for Japan to have the strength to say “no” when pressured and the courage to say “yes” when that was the right thing to do, regardless of what others would have chosen.
This is the legacy Abe leaves behind for Japan, for whom this reboot was long overdue, given the country’s rapid rise to the global stage after the destruction of World War II and the challenges that arose in its aftermath.
Syed Munir Khasru heads the international think tank, IPAG Asia Pacific, Australia, which also has a presence in Dhaka, Delhi, Vienna and Dubai