End of a Political Era: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Retires

Due to worsening health conditions, Japanese PM Abe resigns.

On August 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation. In his speech, he somberly stated that a relapse of severe ulcerative colitis in July informed his judgement that he “should not continue [his] job as a prime minister” that he would be seeking treatments for his illness. He also listed the various plans and policies that he would be passing on to his successor. 

While Abe’s most recent tenure as prime minister began in 2012, it was not his first time in the position. Abe’s previous term as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, ended abruptly due to a similar onset of the severe ulcerative colitis that forced him to resign in August of that year. Abe was no stranger to the political world—his family boasts an illustrious history in Japanese politics. His grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, served as a minister in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and prime minister’s Hideki Tojo’s cabinet, as well as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. His grandfather’s attempts to revise the constitution in 1947 to allow greater control over Japanese diplomacy likely influenced Abe’s attempts to revise the constitution.

At the center of Abe’s political agenda were promises to revise the Japanese constitution with aims to build up Japan’s military presence in East Asia. In the end, he was unsuccessful because of Article 9 that established Japan as a pacifist state: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Abe’s proposal for revision itself was fairly unpopular amongst the Japanese people. Despite this, Abe increased military funding by ten percent and allowed Japanese troops to be active abroad, justifying this by advocating for a change in the interpretation of Article 9.

While Abe leaves behind an economy coping with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, his previous forays into economic reform policy have had a far greater effect on the Japanese economy. His long term economic legacy will likely be his policy of  “Abenomics” (Japanese: Abenomikusu), which was announced in 2013 as part of an effort to stimulate Japan’s economy and counter previous economic stagnation. The plan consisted of three main points: “aggressive monetary policy, flexible fiscal policy and growth strategy including structural reform.” As described in the 2017 Abenomics report, the plan seeks to activate three main “engines” of the economy. The first is productivity. The plan states that by changing the workflow and increasing labor participation, particularly from women, the elderly, and immigrants, income and consumption will increase. The second engine is increasing innovation and trade. It outlines strategies to increase international trade and decrease corporate regulation. The final engine is corporate activity. The plan states that it would reduce corporate tax and encourage transparency.

The success of these policies is a topic of debate. Some contend that initial increases in the national stock market attest to its worth. Paired with strong trade deals with countries such as the United States and EU member states, from 2012 to 2015, the national GDP increased from 495 to 532 trillion yen. However, this initial boom merely postponed large structural issues: wages were not adjusted to the economic growth; corporate taxes were raised twice after the initial boom, which sparked a recession in the Japanese economy. The debt was on the rise even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the global economy. Abe continually postponed large-scale economic reforms, something his successor will have to deal with.

The prime minister also tread the narrow diplomatic path between China and the United States. Abe was a central figure in the Trans-Pacific partnership and maintained a balance of competition and amiability when dealing with Chinese foreign policy. Abe has maintained his commitment to counter Chinese aggression in the region and Chinese claims to the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands and Okinawawa island, as he sees Japan as a counter to the Chinese system of governance. Nonetheless, Abe acknowledged Chinese economic power and rising status on the global stage. He met with Xi Jinping on several occasions and, before the Covid-19 pandemic, Xi was going to visit Japan. Abe also formed a strong relationship with the United States president Donald Trump which helped to further Japanese-American economic ties.

Abe’s legacy will also be marred by his failures. Although over 75 years have passed since the end of World War Two, Russia and Japan have yet to sign a formal peace treaty. Abe hoped to resolve the ownership of disputed territories and formalize an official peace deal with Putin. Abe’s determination to resolve an abduction crisis with North Korea, where over 17 Japanese citizens were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, appears to have been for naught. Lastly, the effects of the pandemic and what many see as a poor government response lowered Abe’s approval rating to the 30s before his resignation. The pandemic also prompted the postponement of the Olympics, which Abe had fought to secure in Japan.
On September 13, Yoshihide Suga was named Abe’s successor. Suga faces multiple challenges. Some, such as the coronavirus and economic recession, are internal. Others come from nations such as North Korea and China. It remains to be seen whether Suga will follow in Abe’s path or chart a new course for Japan. One of Abe’s final disappointments as prime minister remains the postponement of the 2020 Olympics. Much like the Olympics, Abe’s time in office began with much joy, hope, and success but ended with a whimper and much-unfinished business.

Photo from Shutterstock.

By Nicholas Donnellan