Japan, Asia and India – The Many Legacies of Shinzo Abe

In terms of foreign policy, the improvement of Japan-India relations could be called Abe's biggest contribution.

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Tokyo: Shinzo Abe – assassinated during an election campaign speech on July 8 at the age of 67 – was not any old former prime minister of Japan. Of the 36 men who have held the post since Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, his tenure in two stretches was the longest of them all – a total of 3,188 days or nearly nine years.

His assassin, who served in the Maritime Self-Defence Force, or military, was arrested on the spot. Reportedly he had a grudge against a specific religious group and was upset at Abe’s relations with it.

Like many top-tier Japanese politicians over the past few decades, Abe was born into a political family. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a former prime minister and his father, Shintaro Abe, a former foreign minister.

In 1993, he stood for the first time as a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate for the House of Representatives  – the lower house of Japan’s parliament, the National Diet – and won his seat. He had since then continuously been elected ten times.

Abe distinguished himself in politics and government as he moved up the ladder, first as an aide to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002 – when he famously advocated pushing North Korea on the Japanese abduction issue – and also as chief whip of the Liberal Democratic Party and chief cabinet secretary under Koizumi in 2005.

In September 2006, he took office as prime minister at the age of 52 – the youngest incumbent in Japan’s history. However, he was soundly beaten in the upper house election of 2007 under the influence of the “pensioners that disappeared” problem. His chronic ulcerative colitis got worse, forcing him to withdraw from office in just one year.

Abe came back as the president of the LDP in September 2012, when it was in the opposition and led his party to victory against the Democratic Party of Japan in the lower house elections held in December that year. Since then, the LDP has won six straight victories in the national elections, in both the lower and upper houses, and established the “Powerful Abe” system under the leadership of the prime minister’s office. Abe himself remained prime minister for 8 years this time – from 2012 to 2020.

His major policies could be summarised as implementing “Abenomics” – his way of breathing life into the Japanese economy by focusing on large-scale monetary easing – and expanding the use of Japan’s ‘right to collective self-defence’, a phrase used to describe removing the restraints Tokyo had imposed on the use of its military overseas in the wake of its defeat in the Second World War. After his resignation as prime minister in September 2020 on health grounds, he maintained influence at the top of the biggest faction of the LDP.

Also read: Shinzo Abe and India: A Confluence of Minds

On the domestic front, he oversaw an increase in the consumption tax rate from 8% to 10% during his term. Japan also successfully hosted the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics under his leadership. However, in the later years of his government, more negative incidents – including the Moritomo Gakuen scandal and the Kake Gakuen allegations, in quick succession – rightly caught public attention. His move to revise history textbooks in a more ‘nationalist’ direction also attracted controversy. He has been criticised for the “privatisation of the power”, against which opposition parties have demanded investigations.

Externally, Japan saw successful summit diplomacy unfold under Abe’s leadership. He built close personal relationships with former US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and made his presence felt on the international stage. But the abduction issue and the dispute with Russia over the Kuril islands–  which he saw as some of the most important problems for his government – were not resolved as he had imagined.

Shinzo Abe waves to staff members as they applaud to bid him goodbye at his official residence in Tokyo, Japan September 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato/Files

In terms of foreign policy, the improvement of Japan-India relations could be called Abe’s biggest contribution. “The confluence of two seas” message delivered in his speech in the Indian parliament in 2007 has played a big role in creating the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – a strategic concept designed to encourage India to get involved in the Pacific maritime domain as a counter to China. Abe’s relationship with Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi was close. At the same time, there was a subtle divergence in the Japanese and Indian attitude, even though they were on the same page in terms of their China policy. Essentially, Manmhan-Modi and Abe had different policy orientations vis-à-vis the US and Russia, differences which are now visible in India’s approach to the Ukraine war.

The Government of India conferred the Padma Vibhushan award on Abe in 2021, accepting his large contribution to the development of bilateral relations. This was rare, since most other Japanese Padma awardees have been India-related scholars.

Also read: Abe’s Legacy for New Delhi: Enmeshed Strategic Ties and Bringing India Into the Quad

Abe withdrew from his second term as prime minister when his chronic colitis recurred in September 2020. But he continued to make public remarks on the state of the economy, foreign relations and security. Those remarks, in one way or another, have been influencing government policy under the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida.

The entire spectrum of Japan’s political leadership has condemned Abe’s assassination. The people are voting in the Upper House elections on July 10. The killing is likely to influence the voting pattern in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

Horimoto Takenori is a Visiting Professor at the Gifu Women’s University and Senior Fellow of Center for Contemporary Indian Studies of JIA. He has served as a Professor of Shobi University Graduate School, Project Professor of Kyoto University Graduate School and participated in study committees/groups/projects organised by various ministries, think tanks and universities. He specialises in contemporary international politics with special emphasis on Indo-Pacific, India-US, India-China and Japan-India. He has authored and edited 16 books, the latest of which is Future Directions of India, 2021, besides 121 other articles, commentaries and lectures.