Tragic Departure of Abe: His Legacy Stays on Part – II
Prof Rajaram Panda

The assassination of Japan’s youngest and longest-serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was not only a tremendous shock to Japan but to the rest of the world. This also serves a wake-up call for the Japanese government to review the security apparatus of the country. This also stresses painful need to root out extremism and protect the democratic and peaceful ethos that has characterised the Japanese society during the post-War years. The real danger is the rising extremism and radical behaviour, which pose threats to Japanese society.

During the post-war period Japan adopted strict laws to regulate gun ownership. Though there are occasional shootings among gangs and yakuzas, violent crimes are low. Political assassinations were unheard of until attack on Abe Shinzo that took his life on 8 July in Nara. It goes to the credit of Abe that he was instrumental in ensuring political stability in the country from 2012 to 2020 after a string of “revolving prime ministers” with short tenures in office.

The killing of Abe was a clear demonstration that there was a security lapse. The police have admitted this and working to review the policing system but the challenge is bigger for the police now. There is a real fear that the gun culture has made an entry into Japan and this has to be stemmed. The lawmakers need to identify the reasons – whether societal or external or any other variables, and come out with appropriate laws to deal with violations. This observation needs to be understood in the context of a man from Shizuoka Prefecture, Akira Uematsu, 67, making two telephone calls to the campaign office of Sanshiro Matsuyama, threatening to kill an Upper House candidate Matsuyama in Nagano Prefecture soon after Abe was shot, telling “you’re next”.[1] The police cannot afford to take such open threats lightly. Though Uematsu was arrested, the issue is more serious than this for the police to look into. This cannot be taken as a stray incident. The kind of attack on a national figure of Abe’s stature is utterly without precedent in Japan’s modern history, especially when firearms sales are strictly controlled. This also showed that security at political rallies is virtually non-existent.

There is no denying that Abe’s assassination has struck at the very foundations of Japan’s democracy.[2] Therefore, appropriate policy response by the establishment is the need of the hour. In a democracy, voters elect their representatives and winners represent all irrespective of who had voted for them or not. Being the longest serving Prime Minister, Abe’s long tenure in office demonstrated that people reposed their faith on his ability as a political leader to govern. Though Abe’s political legacy shall be subject to evaluation for a long time to come, his role in elevating Japan’s global profile by building bridges with countries friendly to Japan shall be talked about for the foreseeable future.

Political leaders in office in any democracy might have displeased some sections of the people in the society as no policy can universally be satisfactory to all. That does not justify for a politician to pay with his life. During the pre-war history, there were several cases of political terrorism. Japan had seen political assassination in 1932 when then Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai (1855-1932) was killed on 15 May. There was also an attempted coup by young Imperial Army officers on 26 February 1936. Such political culture that fuelled Japan’s entry into the War ended in disaster. Even during the post-War period, there were cases of frustration but the people had tasted by then the fruits of democracy and jealously defended their freedom. As a result, the country did not see any such political violence for in the entire Post-War period. The killing of Abe shall further make the people aware of the value of democracy so that such incidents do not reoccur.

Domestic Policies and Abenomics

What legacy Abe has left in his domestic policies? With the reputation of being a right-wing nationalist, his bold vision was to rejuvenate the country’s stagnant economy, revise the pacifist constitution and give the country a stronger voice in the region and the world. His signature economic strategy was his Abenomics that aimed to bring back the boom years of the 1980s. After initial success since the 1990s and away from the so-called “lost decades”[3], his policy faltered due to entrenched interests and scandals.

His economic theory named after him, Abenomics, is another legacy that his successors emulated his example such as Suganomics and Kishidanomics and the influence of Abenomics was overwhelmingly retained. Abenomics was a mix of ultra-loose central bank policy, increased spending by the government, and structural reform, which came to define the monetary and fiscal response of authorities around the world to the global financial crisis. Irrespective of various strands of opinions either critical or endorsing of his Abenomics, the truism is that his economic theory leaves a resounding effect on Japan’s economic future.

Another domestic reform that Abe initiated was to overhaul corporate culture, bring more women into work and reverse declining birth rate. These three issues have strong societal base and not easy to do away with even with strongest laws. It cannot be claimed that Abe succeeded but to his credit he did attempt to bring about change and improve the Japanese society.

Abe’s legacy in transforming the country’s defence and foreign policy shall last for quite some time. Though his long ambition to amend Article 9 of the pacifist constitution did not succeed because of severe constraints, he did succeed to some extent by reinterpreting the Article 9 that enabled overseas deployment of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. This, and focus to increase the defence expenditure, with far-reaching consequences shall be Abe’s important legacy that would determine Japan’s security profile.[4]

Keeping in tune with his nationalistic moorings, Abe was not deterred from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to make offerings to Japan’s war dead, thereby angering China and South Korea.

Quad

Abe was instrumental in raising Japan’s profile and international presence more than perhaps any Japanese leader since the World War II. On the foreign policy front the most important legacy that Abe leaves behind is his promotion of the Quad idea, a de facto security partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia. Quad was seen by China as the Asian NATO with the objective to contain China. Though there is no denying the fact that Quad originated as a response to check China’s aggressive and militaristic drive in the region, this remained a festering issue in Japan-China relations. Abe had floated this idea during his August 2007 address to the Indian Parliament, famous for the title “Confluence of the two Seas”, but it remained dormant for some time because of the initial opposition from Australia and fractured opinion within India and thus went into hibernation following Abe’s sudden resignation on health issues. It was resurrected during Abe’s second term and put on fast gear as China’s aggressive posture and rising influence assumed threatening proportion and needed to be countered. Abe’s major legacy in taking the initiative to the formation of the Quad is set to shape Asia’s geopolitical landscape for a long time to come.

Relations with China

Despite Abe’s perceived anti-China stance, he did make efforts to improve ties and held a cordial summit with President Xi Jinping in 2018. The planned return trip by Xi to Japan in 2019 was derailed by the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. Abe resigned for the second time owing to health reasons and his dream of hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was postponed for the next year during Yoshihide Suga’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Abe’s comments on Taiwan also angered China, further straining bilateral ties. In December 2021, Abe warned that it would be “suicidal” for Beijing to attack Taiwan, amid rising tensions in the region, making it clear that Taiwan, Japan and the US must strengthen their capabilities and work together to counter security threats.[5]

Even when out of power Abe warned about the “dire challenge” to Taiwan’s security and democracy, and called on Washington to ditch its long-standing strategic ambiguity in the event of a Chinese invasion on the island. It angered Beijing. Abe’s outspokenness prompted China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times to accuse Abe of becoming “more unrestrained in unleashing his anti-China energy”.[6] Japan-China ties nosedived in 2012 when Tokyo nationalised the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Tensions over territorial disputes in the East China Sea have long been a key source of friction between the two countries.

On South Korea

As regards relations with South Korea, bilateral ties too remained strained. The comfort women issue and the South Korean court’s verdict to endorse the claims of compensation of labourers working in Japanese companies in Japan during the period when Japan had colonised the Korean Peninsula frayed tempers in Japan. Abe was also dismayed with Moon Jae-in’s outreach campaign to North Korea even when Pyongyang continued to fire missiles into Japan’s airspace. Abe realised that he alone cannot deal with the North Korean missile and nuclear programmes and therefore leaned more on the alliance relationship with the US. With frustration, Abe chose to impose unilateral sanctions against North Korea with a view to pressure North Korea. In view of the deteriorating security situation in Japan’s neighbourhood, Abe focussed on bolstering Japan’s self-defence capabilities in different stages. Enacting new security laws that allowed defence of allies, Abe pledged to strengthen Japan’s missile-defence capabilities against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats.

On North Korea

With regard to North Korea, Abe brought the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to the international attention. Despite his best efforts, Abe could not have a summit meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, though the latter had summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the US President Donald Trump. Abe had promised the families of the abductees to bring back the members of their families from North Korea. That promise remained unrealised, despite best efforts. Japan remained under constant threat of missile firing by that often flew over Japan’s air space.

Abe had visited North Korea as part of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s delegation to Pyongyang and participated in the first Japan-North Korea summit in September 2002. Since then he had built a reputation as a major proponent of the abductees issue and raised the issue in the Diet discussion several times and met the family of one of the victims, Akihiro Akimoto but without success.[7] During the 2002 summit, North Korea admitted to having kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals but returned only five. Japan always contended that Pyongyang was hiding the actual number of Japanese nationals under North Korea’s custody. With a sense of guilt and with utmost modesty and humility, Abe apologised in his resignation speech for not being able to solve the abduction issue and that it remained a “source of regret”.

Other Major Initiatives

Among other initiatives, Abe led the revival of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the form of Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTTP) after Trump pulled out from the pact. Though Abe was no longer helming the premiership after he resigned, his presence in Japan’s politics was always felt both in domestic and regional issues as he was the leader of a powerful LDP faction.

Continuing his regional outreach initiatives, Abe deepened strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam, and other regional powers as well as extra-regional powers like the European Union and Britain, and also upgraded Japan’s own defence capabilities. But the Kurile Islands issue with Russia remained unresolved.

As regards Abe’s relations with India, he had established a special bonding with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an emotional column published in major Indian newspapers, PM Modi extolled the special relationship he had with Abe and the affection that Abe got in abundance from the Indian people. During his tenure, India-Japan ties scaled new heights on all fronts – economic, cultural, defence/security, maritime security and others. A joint India-Japan partnership to develop India’s northeast region is another legacy Abe leaves behind. A consensus between the two countries on the need for an open and free Indo-Pacific during Abe’s tenure is another milestone initiative. Each of these initiatives and many more deserve separate analysis. (Concluded)

Endnotes :

[1] “’You’re next’. LDP candidate threatened after attack on Abe”, The Asahi Shimbun, 10 July 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14666010
[2]“Abe slaying a full-frontal assault on our democratic ideal”, The Asahi Shimbun, 9 July 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14664918
[3]See, Hiroshi Yoshikawa, Japan’s Lost Decade (2002), I House Press, Tokyo, pp. 267
[4] “Killing of Abe stresses painful need to root out extremism”, South China Morning Post, editorial, 9 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3184691/killing-shinzo-abe-stresses-painful-need-root-out-extremism?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=enl
[5] Maria Siow, “Shinzo Abe: a political titan who shaped Japan’s policies on China, defence, economy”, 8 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3184587/shinzo-abe-force-behind-japans-policies-china-defence-economy?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=enlz-longreads&utm_content=20220709&tpcc=enlz-longreads&UUID=2b22bd78-81ce-47b2-a193-00c7ec579ed6&tc=5&CMCampaignID=62a23269b1c415b29f0cb6a4f58110ac
[6] Amber Wang, “Beijing grapples with Shinzo Abe’s mixed legacy on China-Japan relations after former prime minister is shot dead”, 9 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3184675/beijing-grapples-shinzo-abes-mixed-legacy-china-japan?module=top_picks&pgtype=article
[7]Chaewon Chung, “Shinzo Abe, key advocate for resolution of abduction issue, dead at 67”, https://www.nknews.org/2022/07/shinzo-abe-key-advocate-for-resolution-of-abduction-issue-dead-at-67/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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