Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia

15 September 2020

Despite the stability of his long tenure as Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe’s legacy is rightly receiving mixed reviews, Sebastian Maslow writes.

By mid-August, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marked his 2798th day as prime minister and thus became the longest uninterrupted occupant of the Kantei (the Prime Minister’s Office), followed by his great uncle Eisaku Sato, who governed Japan between 1964 and 1972.

Including his short stint as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, Abe is modern Japan’s longest serving leader. Amidst declining public support and a second wave of coronavirus infections hitting Japan, on 28 August, his political career came to an abrupt end as he announced his resignation, citing recurrent health issues.

In retrospect, what is Abe’s legacy? His biggest achievement is clearly his success in restoring political stability after the country witnessed a cascade of short-lived administrations – ironically, ushered in by Abe’s abrupt resignation in 2007, also due to health reasons.

Securing six electoral victories since his return in 2012, Abe has pacified the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been marked by internal rivalries between factions, and where rivalry served as fertile ground for systemic corruption and political instability.

Since his return as prime minister in 2012, Abe has pledged to ‘take Japan back’ from the constraints of its postwar regime. At the core of this agenda was his promise to revise the country’s pacifist constitution and to rejuvenate the nation through new conservative values.

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While Abe has failed to achieve that constitutional revision, he surely has succeeded in steering public debate about the nation’s future while readjusting Japan’s national security posture. His reinterpretation of the 1947 constitution to allow for Japan’s participation in collective self-defence operations alongside its ally the United States has further expanded Tokyo’s role in international security affairs.

Further, Abe’s initiative to establish new security partnerships in the region, his lifting of Japan’s virtual ban on arms exports, his issuing of a National Security Strategy, the establishment of a National Security Council, and his extensive overseas travel were all part of what was surely a successful attempt to establish Japan as a proactive and leading power in global affairs.

Abe’s Asia pivot and his support for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific were illustrative of his attempt to develop a new grand strategy for Japan. His close relationship with American President Donald Trump was praised by many as Abe securing the international liberal order and tempering unpredictable American foreign policy in East Asia’s drastically shifting geostrategic environment.

Still, Abe’s foreign policy record is mixed. In particular, his unaccomplished pledge to resolve the North Korea abduction issue has disappointed many, even some of his core supporters. In fact, Abe’s political ascendency was rooted in his political support for the families of whose members were kidnapped by Pyongyang during the Cold War and his tough stance towards North Korea.

The return of the abductees was termed a precondition for the normalisation of diplomatic relations with North Korea. In addition, his attempt to solve the territorial dispute with Russia by nourishing close personal ties with Putin was of no avail.

Another reminder to many of postwar Japan was the string of political scandals that plagued the Abe administration. Foremost among these, the so-called Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school scandals that have unfolded since 2017 are widely seen as evidence that little has changed in Japanese politics under conservative leadership.

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Decisions are still made on behalf of crony networks that have always connected business leaders, bureaucrats and politicians, who grant favours to one another in exchange for support. This tendency intensified as Abe centralised power, putting the Prime Minister’s office at the centre of bureaucracy career decisions.

The result was what came to be known in Japan as ‘sontaku’ politics: a bureaucratic apparatus anticipating the political will of the prime minister in the hope of being granted high positions.

These political scandals, along with the frequent manipulation and destruction of public records and an increased pressure on Japan’s media have caused deep concerns over democratic backsliding.

Lastly, Abe’s pledge to reform Japan’s economy through Abenomics and his success in bringing the Olympic Games to Tokyo failed, as Japan’s economic recovery stalled when the Olympics were postponed amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Despite Abe’s increasing of the consumption tax, few believe that he succeeded in creating a more a sustainable Japan.

The push for structural reform including reform of the labour market has, however, deepened social disparities with an increasing number of people trapped in precarious employment. These trends are not brought forcefully to the surface as Japan struggles with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, Abe’s legacy is a mixed one. On the one hand, while pledging radical reform and an end of the postwar regime, a series of political scandals have reminded many of the old days of LDP postwar politics. Growing economic disparity as a result of Abenomics and a deregulated labour market has further amplified the sense of crisis of the sustainability of postwar growth and welfare.

On the other hand, after a cascade of short-lived governments in the 2000s Abe must be credited with the success of restoring political stability and of entrenching the LDP as Japan’s natural party of government.

Abe also did succeed putting in redefining Japan’s geostrategic purpose, making it a capable player in international and security affairs. In sum, looking back on his almost eight year tenure, Abe certainly did not evolve into the revisionist many expected he we would be at the outset of his second term.

What’s next? The race to succeed Abe is in full swing. As Abe’s long-time right-hand man and chief engineer of a newly powerful Kantei with a strong grip on the bureaucracy, early on the LDP’s main factions have embraced Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to succeed Abe. Predictably, Suga was elected as the party’s new party president on Monday and now awaits confirmation to become the country’s next prime minister – a mere formality given the LDP’s majority in the Japanese Diet.

Involved in Abe’s key policies, Suga has already pledged to continue the Abe-era policy line, though with a stronger focus on domestic politics. Only elected by a limited number of party members, the prime minister will likely seek a public mandate to consolidate his power by dissolving the lower house soon after the leadership transition at the helm of the LDP is completed.

The unfolding post-Abe leadership competition, however, has brought back the LDP’s old factional power politics. Long a key feature of postwar politics, the return of clear LDP factions may jeopardise the party’s unity and thus political stability, and thus the Abe era’s legacy.

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