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Shinzo Abe | Japan’s eternal Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe on August 25 marked his 2,800th day in office — a record for a country that, in the five years in between Mr. Abe’s short-lived one-year term in office that ended in 2007 and his coming to power in 2012, had seen five different Prime Ministers.

And then, on his 2,802nd day, Mr. Abe announced, out of the blue, that he would be stepping down.

He said he was “no longer in a condition to respond confidently to the mandate of the people” because of health reasons. His first term in office had also been affected by illness — a chronic intestinal disease called ulcerative colitis — which had resurfaced in June.

Mr. Abe, 65, was Japan’s youngest post-war Prime Minister when he came to office in 2006. The grandson of a former PM Nobusuke Kishi, and the son of a former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, he was destined for politics. In 2006, he took over from fellow Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Junichiro Koizumi and was seen as being very much in the same mould — a charismatic reformer who hoped to revive the economy, and a nationalist who wanted Japan to be free of many of its post-War shackles, particularly elements of its U.S.-imposed pacifist Constitution. Under Article 9, Japan “forever renounces… the threat or use of force” in settling disputes, long a bugbear of nationalists who sought a revision under rising threats from China and North Korea.

Also read: Analysis | Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister who raised Japan’s profile, deepened ties with India

When he returned to power in 2012, he famously declared that “Japan is back”, outlining his ambition to inject life into its economy and raise Japan’s profile abroad.

Mixed legacy

On the home front, Mr. Abe leaves behind a mixed legacy. What came to be known as the “three arrows” of “Abenomics” — looser monetary policy, big fiscal stimulus, and economic reforms — briefly boosted sentiment, but its limited gains have been eroded by the impact of the pandemic, with his government facing heat for what many saw as a belated response.

A number of political controversies didn’t help either, although, as Japan’s Kyodo News observed on his public image as he steps down, the “positive economic impact has helped Abe ride out a string of money and favouritism scandals engulfing him and his Cabinet members, including the dubious sale of state-owned land to a school operator linked to his wife Akie.”

The longevity of Mr. Abe’s rule is in itself an important political legacy for Japan, observes Yoshikazu Kato of the Asia Global Institute, heralding an era where the Japanese public seeks greater stability in its politics. Mr. Kato expects continuity, and not radical change, from Mr. Abe’s successors.

Mr. Abe’s biggest legacy, however, may have been on the foreign policy front. When he took over in 2012, relations with China had collapsed over the “nationalisation” of the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands. By visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine in his first year in office, he placated the nationalists, although angering China and South Korea. The shrine honours Japan’s civilian war-dead but also enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals. At the same time, he went ahead with a visit to China in 2014 for the APEC Summit — and sought a meeting with President Xi Jinping that would mark the thaw in relations. Mr. Abe also pushed for a reinterpretation of the Constitution, enabling Japan to deploy its troops on foreign soil to protect its allies, although he failed in his long-term quest to revise the Constitution.

Hiroyuki Akita, a commentator at Nikkei in Tokyo, says Mr. Abe more than his predecessors pushed the idea of an “Indo-Pacific” region governed by rules and international norms, and “established a base for regional security cooperation by the U.S. and Japan, India, Australia.” Mr. Abe particularly backed closer ties with India, the one relationship that had broadly escaped the ups-and-downs that marked Japan’s other close ties, including with the U.S.

Beyond his belief that India had a fundamental role to play in the region — a view that Mr. Abe articulated in a 2007 address to India’s Parliament on the “confluence of the two seas”, an early invocation of the Indo-Pacific concept — part of his affinity was also personal.

During a visit to India, Mr. Abe revealed the deep impact that Jawaharlal Nehru’s warmth towards his grandfather, who had been accused of war crimes, had left on him, at a time when Japan’s standing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War couldn’t have been lower. “As a young boy seated on his knee, I would hear him telling me that Prime Minister Nehru introduced him to the biggest audience he had ever seen in his lifetime,” he recalled.

Mr. Abe set a new template for dealing with China. He raised Japan’s profile abroad, invested in countering Chinese influence in the neighbourhood, and deepened relations with India, the U.S., and Australia, all while repairing relations with Beijing and not compromising on territorial issues — a formula that may well hold lessons for India and the region.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 5:20:06 PM |

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