When longevity is the biggest achievement: on Shinzo Abe

This week, Abe is set to become Japan’s longest-serving PM; but his legacy may not be as enduring as his term in office

November 19, 2019 12:05 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

On November 20, Shinzo Abe will become the longest- serving Prime Minister of Japan, overtaking Taro Katsura’s record of 2,886 days in office.

Mr. Abe has been in power for two different spells: a short-lived one, between July 2006 and September 2007, and the current stretch since 2012. Over the last seven years, he has brought stability to a political landscape that had been fractured, honing the image of a strong, conservative leader readying Japan for a newly muscular role in a shifting geopolitical landscape.

Mr. Abe has steered the economy out of deflation and decline, if not into growth. He has presided over a significant increase in the country’s military capabilities and attempted to expand Japan’s strategic options beyond its traditional reliance on the United States.

The TINA factor

And yet, his legacy might not be as long-lasting as his time in office. Critics say the only reason Mr. Abe is still in power is because of a weak and uninspiring Opposition. In other words, the TINA (there is no alternative) factor that voters around the world are all too familiar with.


When Mr. Abe returned to power in 2012, Japan had been through five Prime Ministers in as many years. His immediate order of business was implementing a set of economic reforms to stimulate the economy, popularly dubbed Abenomics. The three pillars of this stimulus included monetary easing, fiscal spending and deregulation to promote private investment. He also vowed to bring more women into the workforce, an attempt nicknamed “womenomics”. More recently, Mr. Abe has reinvented Japan, from a recalcitrant participant in trade liberalisation to a leader of the Trans-Pacific Partnership bloc, after the U.S. withdrew from it in 2017.

Under him, Japan has boosted defence spending and enhanced its ability to project power outside of its borders. In a historic shift in 2014, Mr. Abe’s government reinterpreted (without amending) the Constitution to permit Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since the Second World War. A five-year defence programme announced in 2018 allocated 25.5 trillion yen ($233.7 billion) in spending, a 6.4% rise over the previous five years.

On the diplomatic front, Mr. Abe has reached out to traditional partners like the U.S. (he was the first foreign leader to meet with Donald Trump after the President’s election), while keeping ties with rival China on an even keel. Mr. Abe made an official visit to Beijing last October (the first such visit in nearly seven years) and President Xi Jinping is expected in Japan next year. For Japan, it has been a difficult balancing act, to avoid excessive dependence on the U.S., while anticipating the dangers associated with a more assertive China. Mr. Abe has demonstrated considerable tactical pragmatism in walking this tightrope.


Mr. Abe has also reached out to strengthen alliances with regional powers like India and floated the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific for which he has gained the backing, to varying degrees, of the U.S., Australia and India.

But, despite this smorgasbord of initiatives, Mr. Abe’s tenure has not been entirely rosy. The Japanese economy remains limp and Japanese corporations have so far proved unable to transform themselves into 21st century technology leaders. Though, during his tenure, Japan has benefited from periods of economic growth and low unemployment, the country remains mired in a slow-growth, high-debt deflationary trap. The government recently downgraded its 2019 growth forecast to 0.9% from an earlier prediction of 1.3%.

Moving away from pacifism

Domestically, Mr. Abe’s vision of a less pacifist Japan remains deeply contested. His most cherished policy goal is the amendment of Article 9 in the Constitution: the clause that restricts Japan’s ability to maintain a military deterrent. But it is looking no closer to fulfilment than it did at the beginning of his reign. The Prime Minister wants to write the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, as the military is known, into Article 9, giving constitutional standing to de facto reality. However, a survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper earlier this year showed that 64% of respondents opposed even this modest revision. While Mr. Abe continues to reiterate his pledge to push through the revision by 2020, it is looking increasingly unlikely that he will prove successful.


It is also not clear how effectively, or if at all, Japan can meet the challenge of China’s increasing heft. Relations with neighbour and potential ally, South Korea, are worse than ever. Under Mr. Abe, Japan has made little progress in facing up to its historical responsibility for the widespread atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army in the Second World War. The recent deterioration in relations with Seoul were prompted by unresolved grievances involving Koreans who were forced to work in Japan’s mines and factories during the war, as well as “comfort women” who were made to service the military’s brothels. Far from helping heal the historical wounds inflicted by Japan, Mr. Abe’s nationalistic stance is seen as unrepentant at best and provocative at worst.

Finally, for all his cosying up to the U.S. President, Mr. Abe has failed to insulate Japan from Mr. Trump’s transactional approach to international relations. The U.S. administration has recently asked Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much as it currently does to offset the costs of stationing American troops in Japan. The White House also threatened Japan with punitive tariffs on Japanese vehicles even as it was negotiating a bilateral trade deal with Tokyo. The administration had earlier raised tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminium.

Barring any major upheavals, Mr. Abe’s long reign will come to an end in September 2021 when his term as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party finishes. At the current juncture it looks as though he will get a pass in the history books, though not with distinction. ‘A’ for longevity, but a ‘B,’ at most, for everything else.

Pallavi Aiyar is a writer and journalist based in Tokyo

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