Decoding the legacy of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s departing prime minister

After he had served nearly eight years in office, he said it was ailing health that led him to resign. The once-popular leader, however, had recently seen a decline in his standing with the Japanese people, and he was criticized for his handling o...

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Abe’s most enduring legacy may well be a series of economic policies intended to revive Japan’s once-outsize economic growth.
By Motoko Rich and Russell Goldman

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, announced on Friday that he would resign, ending a term in office in which he pursued — with mixed results — a conservative agenda of restoring the country’s economy, military and national pride.

Abe, 65, the grandson of a prime minister, was initially elected to Parliament in 1993 after the death of his father, a former foreign minister. He first served as prime minister beginning in 2006, but stepped down after a scandal-plagued year in office.


He became the country’s leader again in 2012, promising to fix its beleaguered economy and achieve his nationalist dream of amending Japan’s pacifist Constitution to allow for a full-fledged military.

After he had served nearly eight years in office, he said it was ailing health — a relapse of a bowel disease that had contributed to his previous exit in 2007 — that led him to resign.

The once-popular leader, however, had recently seen a decline in his standing with the Japanese people, and he was criticized for his handling of the country’s coronavirus epidemic and his support for an arrested member of his party.
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Here is a look at his time in office and his legacy.

Foreign Policy
Abe rose to national prominence in the early 2000s when he accompanied the then prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, on a trip to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea.

Championing the cause of those abducted citizens remained a preoccupation for the rest of his tenure, and contributed to his hawkish views on the isolated Communist country.

While in office, he encouraged a discussion about whether Japan should acquire the ability to strike missile launch sites in enemy territory if an attack appeared imminent, a debate tied to the rising nuclear threat from the North.
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His grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was accused of — but never tried for — war crimes, and the legacy of Japan’s actions in World War II haunted the country well into Abe’s term.

Though he sought to improve ties with China and South Korea, where bitter wartime memories run deep, Abe riled both neighbours in 2013 by visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. He never again visited the shrine, but relations with South Korea over how, and for how long, Japan must atone for its wartime atrocities reached a level of intensity unseen in decades.
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After years of a chilly relationship with China, however, Abe tried to usher in a new era, making the first visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister in seven years when he met with Xi Jinping, China’s leader, in 2018.

Abe was one of the few world leaders to maintain a consistently close relationship with President Donald Trump, regularly chatting on the phone and playing golf.

Domestic Policy
Abe’s desire for a more muscular Japanese military stemmed from more than just North Korea’s saber rattling and its launch of missiles over Japan in 2017.

For years, Abe sought to exorcise the demons of Japan’s wartime past by revising the pacifist clause of Japan’s Constitution, which was imposed by the United States after its victory in World War II.

In 2015, after huge public protests and a battle with opposition politicians, he pushed through legislation that authorized overseas combat missions alongside allied troops in the name of “collective self-defense.”

But his goal of “normalizing” Japan’s military ultimately failed, as Abe proved unable to sway the Japanese public.

Some believed that after Abe was sworn in to his third term following the 2017 election, his Liberal Democratic Party would change its rules to allow him to seek a fourth term. But his longstanding popularity took a hit this year as the country bumbled through the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the outbreak’s onset, Abe was slow to close Japan’s borders and implement a state of emergency urging people to stay home and shops to close. Critics initially branded the response clumsy and later faulted Abe for a lack of leadership, particularly on the economy.

Nevertheless, Japan’s death rate has remained far below that of many other developed nations.

Economic Policy
Abe’s most enduring legacy may well be a series of economic policies intended to revive Japan’s once-outsize economic growth.

His “Abenomics” program was intended to battle the threats of deflation and an aging work force, through cheap cash, fiscal spending and corporate deregulation.

The combination delivered results in the early years of his term, lifting the economy out of an unrelenting malaise and raising Abe’s international profile. But growth suffered in 2019 as a result of the trade war between China and the United States, and took a further hit this year when the coronavirus pandemic spurred the country’s biggest postwar slump.

A key factor in Abe’s economic platform was an effort to empower women, as he argued that increasing their participation in the work force would help counterbalance a declining and aging population. But some of the early promises of his “Womenomics” agenda — such as drastically raising the proportion of women in management and in government — never came to fruition.
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