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What did Shinzo Abe mean to Japan?

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Image source, Reuters

Japan has witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of grief and sadness for former prime minister Shinzo Abe who was assassinated in the city of Nara on Friday.

The country has seen nothing like it since the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989.

Abe, the country’s longest serving post-war prime minister, inspired respect rather than love.

In fact, opinion polls repeatedly showed that most Japanese weren’t overly fond of him, even though they kept voting for him.


So what is behind their grief?

It’s partly driven by shock at the way he died – gunned down while delivering a speech at a campaign event. There’s an inability to comprehend that such an outrageous death could take place in Japan, where gun crimes and political violence are so rare.

But with his death, there is also a growing realisation of what Abe gave Japan.

First and foremost, that was stability and security.

Before Abe returned to power in 2012, Japan had just suffered its biggest trauma since World War Two – a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

The governing coalition was in chaos. The Japanese economy had still not recovered from its 1992 stock market collapse, and over the previous two decades, Japan had seen 14 prime ministers come and go. One of them lasted just 64 days.

Abe swept back into office with a real sense of energy, and most importantly, an economic plan that he conveniently dubbed “Abenomics”.

He declared “Japan is back”. He announced a “big bazooka” of cash that would flood the financial markets with liquidity and force prices upwards even as interest rates were dropped below zero.

As prices rose, and with nowhere to put their cash, people were compelled to spend, creating growth, and pushing up wages.

Did “Abenomics” work? Not really. But the stock market soared, employment picked up and the man in the prime minister’s office appeared to know what he was doing.

Economics was actually never Abe’s strong suit. His lifelong obsession was national security. And that’s where his true legacy lies.

People watch as a vehicle carrying the body of the late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, leaves after his funeral at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, Japan July 12, 2022.

Image source, Reuters

Abe sought to build an alliance of what he called “like-minded democracies”, including India and Australia. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Quad, an alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia.

But the key to Japan’s security policy is “Article 9” – in Japan, everybody knows what you mean when you say the words.

It’s a crucial part of the constitution that makes Japan a “pacifist nation”. It was put there by the victorious Americans after World War Two, and Japanese nationalists have been railing against it ever since. They claim it makes Japan weak, unable to stand up for itself or defend its allies.

In a post-Cold War world, with the threat from China and North Korea rising, Abe was determined that Article 9 had to go.

“The idea of the constitution was that Japan should rely on the goodwill of the world for its security,” says Kazuhiko Togo, a former senior diplomat and friend of Abe.

“It’s nonsense. So, Abe wanted to get out from this fallacy,” he adds.

But how?

Changing Japan’s constitution is extremely hard. It needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, and the support of a national referendum.

Abe knew that was all but impossible. So, he came up with another solution – he would pass a law “re-interpreting” the meaning of Article 9.

To Mr Togo that was a stroke of genius.

“He changed the interpretation of Article 9, so that if the United States is attacking in the vicinity of Japan then it’s as if Japan is attacked, and that would allow us to assert our right to collective self-defence. The implication is huge,” he explains.

That is, if the United States enters a war to, let’s say, defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, Japan can join as well.

Abe’s critics agree that the implications are huge, but they also see them as troubling.

“I think Mr Abe’s argument [about Article 9] would have been more convincing if he had the courage and honesty to do it from the front door rather than doing everything through the back door,” says Professor Koichi Nakano, a political scientist.

“It’s like Article 9 was thrown out of the window without having even been formally discussed and formally amended.”

US President Obama shakes hands with Japanese PM Abe at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2013

Image source, Reuters

Even Abe’s supporters admit his was an incomplete legacy.

But after Sunday’s election, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may now be in a position to push through the constitutional change he had always sought.

The governing coalition led by LDP already had a two-thirds majority in the lower house. And it slightly increased its majority in the upper house in polls held two days after Abe’s killing.

But more importantly, a right-wing party, Ishin no Kai, has significantly upped its share of seats in the upper house. While it’s not a coalition partner, it supports constitutional revision and would therefore vote in favour of it.

That vote would cement Abe’s legacy.

In some ways, Abe was ahead of his time. Since he stepped down in 2020 for health reasons, Russia has invaded Ukraine and China’s intentions towards Taiwan have become ever clearer.

Japan is now concerned both at China’s increasingly aggressive and frequent intrusions in to Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkaku islands (which China also claims), and Beijing’s air and naval activity around Taiwan.

Taiwan’s northern coast is only 100km south of Japan’s southernmost sea border. So Japan is also aware of the possibility that any conflict over Taiwan would inevitably draw in the United States – and due to the large US military bases in Japan, effect Japan directly as well.

All of this has led to a shift in Japanese public opinion – a majority of the people now support an increase in defence spending.

Perhaps it is finally time for Japan to have that honest conversation about Article 9.

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