Thursday, August 18

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister who brought Japan out of stagnation

The Japanese people are shocked after the violent death of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country’s most influential politician in recent decades, who was shot dead this Friday while delivering a speech at a rally in the city of Nara. Japan’s longest-serving prime minister will be remembered above all for his staying power in politics. He returned to the post in 2012, six years after being forced out by a scandal and his health problems.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s shadow leader assassinated at a rally

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His emblematic economic strategy, known as Abenomics and aimed at revitalizing the world’s third-largest economy after decades of stagnation, drew more international attention than is usually reserved for Japanese leaders. On the foreign policy front, his support for a more prominent role for the Japanese military, in order to counter growing threats from both North Korea and a more assertive China, earned praise from Washington but generated suspicion in Peking.

Abe, a conservative from a family with great political heritage, believed that Japan should end decades of “masochistic” reflection on its role in World War II. This revisionist approach led to a dramatic deterioration in relations with South Korea.

He was 52 years old when in 2006 he became the youngest post-war prime minister. Some saw him as a symbol of change, but others saw him as a product of the Japanese elite: a third-generation politician, groomed for leadership from an early age.

His brief first term was plagued by scandal and division, ending in an abrupt resignation. Although he cited a chronic intestinal ailment as the reason for his resignation, critics believe that the political turbulence of the previous 12 months was the main cause of his departure.

‘Abenomics’: public spending and less bureaucracy

Abe had resigned, but his career was not over. In late 2012, he was given a second chance as prime minister after new medication helped control symptoms of the ailment he was suffering from. He vowed to revive a stagnant economy, revise the postwar “pacifist” constitution to give the military a greater role, and instill conservative values ​​in education. His return marked the end of a period of instability in which Japanese leaders could be replaced at a rate of one a year.

Their Abenomics it included an increase in public spending, a huge monetary expansion and the reduction of bureaucracy: an approach that contrasted with the austerity measures that were being introduced in other liberal democracies. He failed to reverse the low birth rate, but he oversaw labor market reforms that vastly increased the number of women and foreigners finding work, albeit mostly in temporary, low-wage jobs.

The former prime minister pushed through controversial consumption tax hikes to help finance day care centers and fill the gaps in Japan’s overburdened social security system. Although there was some progress thanks to the reforms, the structural problems of the economy were inherited by his successor, Yoshihide Suga, and by the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida.

Abe was instrumental in awarding the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo after convincing International Olympic Committee officials in 2013 that the Fukushima nuclear accident was under control, two years after the triple accident at the plant. Millions of people who watched the broadcast of the 2016 Rio Olympics award ceremony will remember his cameo as Mario Bros, the Nintendo video game character.

Lights and shadows

In foreign policy, Abe was the architect of a slight relaxation in relations with China, which had reached the lowest point in their history due to territorial claims over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. However, he left office with relations between Japan and South Korea in tatters, after the two countries failed to resolve their historic disputes over sex slaves and forced labor during World War II. While there was intransigence on both sides, Abe’s critics point to his denial of accusations – including those of the victims – that Japanese troops had coerced Korean women and girls to work in military brothels during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

Abe went further than the other leaders of the world’s largest economies in trying to win the sympathy of former US President Donald Trump. He drew on their shared love of golf to underscore the importance of Washington’s security commitments in the face of a more active China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

the longest

He became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in November 2019 but, by the summer of the following year, public support had eroded due to his handling of COVID-19 and a series of political scandals, including the arrest of his former Minister of Justice. Citing the recurrence of the disease that had contributed to the premature end of his first term, Abe resigned without presiding over the Tokyo Games, which were postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.

His biggest frustrated plan as a politician was not having been able to fulfill his main ambition: to reform Japan’s pacifist constitution, which prohibits the country from using force to resolve international disputes. In recent weeks, he had spoken out in favor of a significant increase in the defense budget, citing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a warning that Japan must remain vigilant in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. There was even talk of a new comeback and a third term as prime minister.

Although the text of the Constitution, written by the United States, remains unchanged, Abe took advantage of his party’s dominance in Parliament to promote a law in 2015 that allows the Armed Forces to participate in collective self-defense, that is, the right to go in aid of an ally even when Japan itself is not under attack.

Translation by Julian Cnochaert