Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe


Japan is a land of contradictions. An economic powerhouse, once considered, and feared to be, on the verge of global dominance, but now suffering from a sense of drift and malaise. Japan also features an Emperor in a democracy. The reign of wartime emperor Hirohito, whose reign lasted from 1926-1989 is described as “Showa” – enlightened harmony.
Japan has a democracy where the Liberal Democratic Party which is considered as not liberal but deeply conservative, has been in power for all but of a handful of years since 1955. Japan’s pacifist constitution is viewed as an obstruction to re-armament by the political right and it may soon be, as the government puts it, “reinterpreted” again before being changed for the first time. Japan is also a land where tradition is honored but that has undergone profound changes and even upheavals under each modern-era emperor.
Japanese history indicated that Emperor Akihito, was the fifth Emperor since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Back then, the shogunate, a system of feudal military rulers, collapsed. The emperor was plucked from relative political obscurity in Kyoto to reside in Tokyo. He was meant to symbolize stability and a link to the past. It is this harking back to other eras that has bedeviled a country noted for its Blade Runner cityscapes. In Japanese folklore, the first Emperor was Jimmu (about 650 BC), giving Japan, according to legend, the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy.
According to Japanese history, concubinage was only abolished in 1926, the year Akihito’s father, Hirohito, became Emperor. The Americans, the occupying power after WWII, realized that this system had produced a number of possible competing claimants to the throne. This fear resulted in the Imperial Household Law, introduced in 1948, which limited the succession to male descendants of the emperor, Hirohito. The only succession most Japanese recall was Emperor Akihito’s in 1989 when the past truly was another country. But so was the future.
History may look far more kindly on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than Japanese voters did during his last few months of office. Shihoko Goto, Deputy Director for Geo-economics with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program stated that he resigned only days after setting a record as Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Of late, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been struggling in public opinion polls, not least because of voters’ frustration about his handling of the COVID 19 pandemic. Yet, far from declaring good riddance to a Premier who most likely would have continued to slide in popular support, Japan is already beginning to look back nostalgically on Shinzo Abe’s seven years and eight months in office. There is widespread recognition of what he has achieved – not only a stable Japan, but one with a clear view of its own identity and role in the world.
Shihoko Goto noted that even his staunchest critics would not deny that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a clear vision for Japan at a time when countries across the globe have been struggling to grapple with the shifts in the international balance of power and challenges to economic growth. Until 2012, Japan had struggled with defining its identity in a post-Cold War order. As it ceded the number two spot in the global economy to China in 2010, the narrative for Japan both at home and abroad was that it was a country that had peaked, and would continue to slide with an aging population and growing debt.
Tom Clifford, an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing argued that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, brought forth a grand vision, if not a strategy, for Japan to be able to reassert itself as a global power that would champion the rules and institutions that had helped the country reestablish itself after the end of World War II. Faced with a more ambitious China that was not only increasing its military capabilities, but also eager to offer an alternative roadmap for international development that challenged United States dominance, Japan under Abe sought to enhance its defense capabilities and play a greater role in ensuring that the rule of law prevailed across Asia. Tom Clifford stressed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision was undoubtedly welcomed by the United States and by EU member countries as well.
According to Shihoko Goto, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s challenge, however, was that the prospect of a more muscular and assertive Japan had tepid support from Japanese voters themselves and from neighboring China and Korea in particular. The prospects of Japan changing its pacifist constitution despite China’s growing military capabilities, the ongoing threat of North Korea and a less dependable United States as a security guarantor failed to garner wide public support. What’s more, Abe’s much-noted overtures to reach out to President Donald Trump personally to secure greater United States commitment to Japan has had mixed results, and did not necessarily translate to greater public support for his administration. At the same time, many continued to see Abe’s vision for Japan as an extension of his own family’s aspiration, even as he became the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
Daniel Stelter, the founder of the German think tank “Beyond the Obvious” stated that there is no doubt that Abe is as political blue-blood as they come, with former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi as his maternal grandfather, and maternal grandfather Kan Abe a former member of the House of Representatives. His family legacy no doubt gave him a considerable advantage especially within the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, but at the same time, it had continuously been a double-edged sword in winning over public support. Abe’s single greatest achievement is undoubtedly the fact that he brought stability to Japanese politics and became an established global statesman at a time of great global upheaval.
According to Daniel Stelter, amid the rise of anti-globalization and economic nationalism, Abe’s endeavors to press ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and a bilateral trade deal with the EU positioned Japan as a champion of free trade and enhanced its standing as a keeper of the international order. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics provided two important dampers, defining his government in 2020. Neither are expected to have easy solutions moving forward. So perhaps it is no surprise that he resigned when he did. It echoed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first resignation as prime minister when he previously served in the post in 2007, when he left office after only a year due to health reasons.
As things stand, it seems unlikely that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s eventual successor will be able to command the world stage as he did, and with it, Japan’s ability to be a global stabilizer will diminish as well.