No leader in modern Japanese history has drawn as much scrutiny, interest, or controversy than Abe Shinzo, who was assassinated during a campaign speech in Nara one year ago this month, leaving a legacy remains complicated but strangely ambiguous. Like any politician, Abe was a product of his ambition tempered against the realities of circumstance. But his ambition was immense compared to his counterparts who entered the Prime Minister’s Office, nothing less than “escaping the postwar” regime which he believed was holding Japan back from its natural role as a global power. The specific steps he had in mind to achieve this were no less daring, and went well beyond constitutional revision. He sought to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy through structural reform, increasing women’s economic leadership, and enhancing the rules-based commercial order through participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On foreign policy, he hoped to reach a final peace treaty with Russia that would return the islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, and a return of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korea.
These goals weren’t just talk for the campaign trail but became the basis of his policy agenda. Taking the initiative to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership after U.S. withdrawal in 2017 remains a genuine accomplishment. Neither was it a foregone conclusion given that access to the U.S. market was the key enticement among many participants. He expended political capital on each of these goals, passing legislation to enable collective self-defense, he held 27 summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin to secure a peace treaty with Russia, reached a “final and irreversible” agreement with South Korea on the issue of Comfort Women, frequently tabled proposals for constitutional revision, reorganized and centralized Japan’s decision making processes, including the creation of a National Security Council bringing together once-siloed offices, made successive efforts to improve Japan’s economy, and more. He helped solidify Japan as a regional partner through multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment programs for Southeast Asia, gave solidity to concepts like the Quad and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, all while improving relations with Beijing. For all the criticisms of Abenomics, investors needed the reassurance of political stability and the knowledge that economic issues would be addressed with the Prime Minister’s personal capital. Elevating issues like corporate reform and womenomics at the very least put them on the agenda and increased public awareness of the challenges, which is not nothing. Politically, he and his team were adept at instilling party discipline, maximizing the LDP’s seat count, and knowing when to spend his political capital and when to hold back, even if that came at the loss of some of his biggest ambitions.
Abe’s massive ambitions weren’t just talk for the campaign trail but became the basis of his policy agenda.
Importantly, he was most successful when the had public support and policy momentum at his back and the most political space available. The LDP’s 2009 defeat and 2012 return had the effect of clearing out a lot of the obstinate old guards in the party and the bureaucracy with entrenched interests and the sense of entitlement to make demands and replaced them with newer, greener members who swept into office with Abe’s victories and owed their national political careers almost entirely to him. His moves on foreign policy and defense were in line with public recognition that the security environment in East Asia was more threatening than before and Abenomics resonated with Japanese voters concerned with kitchen-table economic issues. He could rely on Japan’s professional and competent bureaucracy with its deep institutional memory and the centralization of authority within the Prime Minister’s Office, or Kantei.
But his tenure also revealed the constraints on his ambitions. Some of these constraints were simply products of circumstance – South Korean domestic politics stymied his goal of moving beyond history issues in the bilateral relationship and many of the gains of Abenomics were undone by the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abenomics itself was effectively the LDP’s old wine in new skins – its emphasis on government spending was already one of the LDP’s oldest mainstays while loose monetary policy was already grounded in the Bank of Japan’s thinking and structural reform got its biggest impetus from the decision to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership which was made during the Democratic Party of Japan’s tenure.
Some of the constraints were self-imposed – his political nous was often highly questionable. He was so convinced that the return of the Northern Territories from Russia would stir the public’s sentiments that he readied a national election to take place shortly after the supposed return of the territories. His two key assumptions were faulty – Japan’s public was ambivalent about the territories and Putin almost never had any intention of returning them anyway. Abe’s calculations were so faulty that by failing to return the islands, Putin may have saved Abe from himself.
For all the anxiety about where Abe might lead Japan, his biggest ambitions like constitutional revision or remilitarization were constrained by a public that defended where they saw the red lines of Japan’s postwar state. Unlike Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, to whom he was often compared, Abe left Japan’s institutions and international standing in better shape than he found them. Most of the fears about constitutional revisionism or remilitarization or media freedom were unrealized. Not because Abe didn’t try to make efforts toward those ends (he often did) but rather because of inertia and an unwillingness to expend enough political capital to possibly overcome those challenges. Unlike his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, who Abe idolized, Abe was ultimately unwilling to sacrifice his political career for the sake of principle, and Abe effectively gave greater weight to becoming Japan’s longest-serving postwar prime minister than to constitutional revision.
Abe was most successful when he had public support – but was also highly constrained by the same public
It will still be a long time if we know how much of the legacy of Abe’s tenure is the result of his individual efforts and how much is a consequence of the moment he was in office. So far, the answer is strangely unclear for someone who held the record for serving as prime minister and was defined by his massive ambitions. Not only did Abe fail to leave behind a successor, but even a year later his faction has remained rudderless without a long-term successor. His most deeply-held goals, constitutional revision and return of the Northern Territories from Russia, are completely off the table for at least the short- to medium-term. His successors, Suga Yoshihide and Kishida Fumio, have not tried to emulate is style or copy his ambitions.
Kishida, the longer-lasting of the two, has so far continued to hew to his reputation as a consensus-builder, whether out of personal disposition or a reflection of the fact that he was elected as a consensus candidate among the LDP’s different factions or (most likely) a combination of both. Events have pushed him towards accelerating nuclear energy restarts and increasing defense spending, but these are more reactions to events rather than the expression of long-held ambitions like those held by Abe. And like Abe, Kishida has been more effective on the international stage and when he’s had public backing. Through improving Japan’s ability to react to events while still being constrained by public opinion, maybe Abe indeed left Japan as a more “normal” country, but not in the way he necessarily intended.
Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.