• Ryan Lee

Shinzo Abe: Statesman, Diplomat, Trailblazer.


On 8th July 2022, former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe was shot twice by an assassin with a homemade firearm. The assassin claimed that the ex-PM was guilty of spreading a harmful religion to Japan which bankrupted his mother. The former Prime Minister was immediately rushed to hospital, but it was too little too late. He had lost too much blood and passed away at age 67.

Whether you agree or disagree with Abe’s policies, let me be clear, it is never acceptable to engage in such senseless violence in the name of advancing certain political ideas over others. Politicians should be engaged in the realm of ideas and rhetoric, and not in the realm of violence and brutality. The mark of civilised humans is being able to disagree about issues, even to a fundamental level yet still maintaining a certain level of respect for an opponent. Even the leaders of China and South Korea, who have always had historical issues with Japan, have expressed their condolences and have condemned the killing with the strongest possible language.

Now is as good a time as any to re-examine the life of Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history and to take an honest look at his achievements, controversy, and ultimately what sort of legacy Shinzo Abe leaves behind.

The mention of Abe’s name instantly brings to mind his trademark economic strategy of “Abenomics”, aimed at countering the effects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. This was based on the “three arrows” of monetary easing from the Bank of Japan, fiscal stimulus through government spending, and structural reforms to boost Japan’s competitiveness. Abe moved fast, implementing 2 of the 3 arrows within his first few weeks of government, leading to a dramatic weakening of the Japanese yen and a decrease in unemployment in Japan, having the lowest unemployment rate in the G7 in 2019.

However, like most radical economic policies, Abenomics does have its fair share of detractors who claim that Abe is misguided in his implementation of the first two “arrows”, including Martin Feldstein and Richard Koo. The two economists argued that while both arrows individually may lead to desirable effects, implementing both at the same time would not in fact compound the effects. Abe committed the fallacy of composition, where the dual implementation would instead lead to an undesirable effect on the economy as a whole.

Perhaps the one near-universally praised “arrow” is Abe’s push for structural change, with an increase in female participation in the jobs market and an increase in immigration to a country that was previously vehemently against foreigners working in Japan. This third arrow is aimed at securing Japan’s long-term future and also brings about a more “international Japan”, pivoting towards a focus on tourism, cultural exports, and the lowering of regulation and barriers to enable free trade. The third arrow is seen as forward-looking and ahead of its time.

Abe is also remembered (for better or worse), for his foreign policy, where he balanced a more belligerent and nationalist stance to maintain the support of the Japanese voters with realistic policies that would better integrate Japan into the international economy.

Abe was known for his ultra-nationalist and provocative actions, including making controversial remarks, such as denying that the Japanese forced women into sexual slavery in WWII, or dismissing South Korean concern about comfort women as being merely foreign interference into Japanese domestic affairs. Abe has also visited Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial war shrine that commemorates the war dead and which lists the names of 1,068 convicted Japanese war criminals. Perhaps these were all moves made to win domestic support, especially when there is still an air of ultra-nationalism that pervades the Japanese Conservative voter population.

Yet paradoxically, Abe is also remembered as a foreign policy expert who opened Japan up to the world after a “lost decade” in the 1990s when it had previously shunned such engagements. Abe laid the vital groundwork for future international cooperation through his initiation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. This was instrumental in the creation of the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) and for a joint vision of “a rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas”, both key ideas that have influenced the defence policy of other countries.

This has understandably frustrated China, who sees this unity between countries as a threat to its exercise of power in the region. Keenly aware of this, Abe has also made attempts to cooperate with China on certain issues, declining to visit Yasukuni Shrine on several occasions and holding many more dialogues with Chinese officials as compared to his predecessors, compromising on certain occasions. As many political analysts have described, Abe has accomplished the truly monumental feat of walking the tightrope that is US-Japan-China relations, all while still maintaining power domestically.

I think it is fair to conclude that Abe, while certainly a controversial figure (especially in China), has a keen sense of Realpolitik that he has applied deftly throughout his career. This skill of practical politics has helped Abe stay in office, change with the times, and trailblaze in his quest to bring Japan back to the international stage after a decade of stagnation. Abe’s innovative spirit and his willingness to take drastic action will be remembered as will his revolutionary Abenomics and his careful tightrope walking that characterised his foreign policy.

Image: Flickr/ Anthony Quintano