The abrupt resignation of Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe on August 28 prompts a sense of déjà vu and at the same time sent shockwaves through the Japanese political establishment. It is the second time that the reemergence of a chronic disease forced Abe to step down. In 2007, during his first term as PM, a year after staying in the office Abe resigned on health grounds. The subsequent leadership vacuum saw the country descending into a period of political instability marked by frequent transition of leadership including six prime ministers, eleven foreign ministers and sixteen defence ministers, only to be saved with the return of Abe in 2012. This time around, Abe's resignation amid a serious pandemic, and the economic, and geopolitical challenges it brings forth, the situation is far more perilous than what it was thirteen years ago.
The leadership transition, however, dangerous the situation may be, may not be as bad as it was in the previous case, given the political stability that Abe worked hard to maintain with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) firmly in power and political opposition in disarray. The challenge, however, remains that any politician in contemporary Japan will be hard-pressed to fill in the leadership vacuum suddenly left by Abe. It is often said that Abe is like a unipolar power in Japanese politics, a banyan tree that left no room for any political leader to emerge. In an LDP election that is set to select the next leader on September 15, it would be surprising to see the emergence of a leader who is not close to Abe. Most likely, the party will elect Yoshihide Suga, Abe's right hand and the current Chief of Cabinet, who will continue to steer the Japanese government in a direction that Abe had set to course.
In his resignation speech, Abe said that he would return to politics after one year of treatment to serve as a legislator from his home province. Though there is no term limit for prime ministership as far as Japanese law is concerned, a three-term limit is set under the LDP law, hence the current term of Abe which is set to expire in September 2021 is his last. Given the tall figure that Abe has been in the Japanese politics, it will be hard to ignore his influence, even without his return to the leadership position.
Abe the Politician
Born into a prominent political family, Abe was destined to become a politician. Abe's father served as foreign minister and was a major figure in Japanese politics in the 1980s. More than his father, Abe's political worldview resembles that of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Japan’s PM in the late 1950s, known for conservative-leaning including strong advocacy for the revocation of the peace constitution. Having entered electoral politics at the age of 29, Abe rose quickly through the ranks to become the youngest PM of post-War Japan at the age of 52. Abe is an exception among Japanese politicians for having reached the PM’s office with no prior experience as a cabinet minister.
During his first term in office, which was marred by corruption scandals, Abe was more of an ideologue with his overt nationalist and historical revisionist agenda, but without a clear programme. Though it was short-lived and testing, yet it proved to be a great learning ground for the metamorphosis of Abe into an astute political leader. On reclaiming power in 2012, Abe declared 'Japan is back' juxtaposing his recovery and return with the ushering of a new era in Japanese history. For Abe "bringing back Japan" meant a departure from the post-War regimes that, according to him restricted Japan from achieving its true potential. Unlike the first term, Abe presented himself as a pragmatist with a plan and the company of experienced aids.
Abe Doctrine: The Political Project
Abe's political project to bring back Japan into the ranks of major players had three broad agenda- economic revitalisation, internationalist foreign and security policy and national rejuvenation through historical revisionism. Having learned from the mistake of not having a clear economic programme during his previous term, Abe introduced the ambitious plan of "Abenomics" with its three arrows of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus through government spending, and structural reforms to bring back the lost dynamism into the Japanese economy. Seven years after the introduction, Abenomics has had a mixed record. Though it pushed the economy to grow at a pace that Japan has not seen in decades until the COVID crisis, Abe could not deliver the structural reform that he promised.
While being a pragmatist, Abe did not shy away from revealing his nationalist agenda articulating a revisionist view of Japan's pre-war history. However, he had to tone down his positions and postpone many of his revisionist agenda, including the amendment of the constitution because of popular and international pressures. Perhaps one programme that went through was the "moral" and "patriotic" education initiatives aimed to impart national pride in children through changes in the government school curriculum. The education reform seeks to overcome the shackles of post-war education regimes that, according to Abe debilitated Japan's political, social, and educational systems. The initiative too ran into trouble when a series of corruption scandals erupted in 2017 that involved alleged favouritism by the Abe administration.
It is perhaps, his ambitious foreign and security policy that Abe would be remembered for a long time. Under Abe, Japan has been drifting away from its isolationist posture underscored by the post-war pacifist national identity to a more internationalist outlook stepping up its role under the banner of "proactive contribution to peace". Central to this transformation has been a series of security and defence reforms including the establishment a National Security Council, which then released Japan's first national security strategy in 2013, the passing of a National Security Law in 2015 that reinterpreted the peace clause of the Japanese constitution to expand the scope and role of Japan's self-defence force and relaxing restrictions on defence technology transfer. Under Abe, Japan strengthened its security alliance with the United States (US) and expanded its security partnership with countries around the world, including with India, ASEAN, Australia, UK and France.
During the Abe tenure, Tokyo has also been seen as a force of stability in a world of geopolitical anxiety. Tokyo stepped up its role to take leadership in maintaining the liberal international order by promoting multilateral economic order and free trade that has come under much stress after the election of Donald Trump as the American President. Abe has also been credited for enhancing Japan's position in the world through his highly personalised diplomacy maintaining close contacts with almost every world leader, including Prime Minister Modi, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and, of course, Donald Trump. Perhaps Tokyo is the only US ally whose relations with Washington have not witnessed deterioration during the Presidency of Trump.
Prime Minister Abe, however, would also be remembered for failing to deliver goals that were closer to his heart, that otherwise would have made him the most daring and ambitious leader of Japanese history. These undelivered promises are the revision of Japanese peace constitution to make Japan a 'normal' country, a peace treaty with Russia to bring closure to the wartime history and the boundary issue between the two countries and a resolution of North Korean abductee issue.
Abe remains a controversial figure in Japanese politics because of his nationalist and revisionist approach to politics. However, he is much revered for his political acumen that brought stability to Japanese politics, skill to win elections and diplomatic expertise that helped enhance Japan's status in international affairs. Abe led his party to win six consecutive general elections, an unparalleled record in post-War Japanese history.
2020 was supposed to be an year that was meant to etch Abe's legacy in history with the declaration of Japan's return to the centre stage of international affairs through the hosting of Olympics in the summer. At one time it appeared that Abe was planning to push the agenda of constitutional amendment following the successful hosting of the Olympics. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic not only that Abe had to postpone the Olympics, but has also come under heavy criticism for his handling of the epidemic. The pandemic has further triggered an economic crisis that has set in the process of an economic contraction of the world's third-largest economy at a pace that has not seen since the end of the second world war.
Abe’s stepping down at a crucial juncture, notwithstanding the public sympathy he has received because of his health condition, will be hard on his political legacy. Only time will tell if future historians will judge Abe's political legacy- as a visionary who initiated the departure of Japan from its post-war subjectivity or a leader who left his throne at a time when the country needed him the most.
*Dr. Jojin V. John, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.