Author: Kazuhiko Togo, University of Shizuoka
The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July 2022 was a shock for Japan, but the longest-tenured head of government after World War II leaves behind a significant legacy.
One of Abe’s most important policy objectives was to shift the interpretation of the post-war pacifist constitution — as embodied in the preamble and Article 9. Abe knew revising Japan’s constitution was politically sensitive, so he focused on legislative decisions as an avenue for change.
Immediately after Abe resumed power in 2012, he raised the issue of collective self-defence. Article 9, as it was interpreted, only allowed for the right of individual self-defence and prohibited the use of collective force. This meant that Japan could only engage in logistical support of US military activities within its region.
It took Abe years, from 2013–2016, to change that interpretation by law. The change means that the Japan Self-Defense Forces can be mobilised when an allied power is attacked and when Japan considers such an attack equivalent to a threat against Japan itself. This has strengthened the US–Japan alliance in many areas, with obvious implications for regional security vis-a-vis North Korea and China. Thus, Abe was able to change Japan’s image on the global stage as a ‘free rider’.
Abe also contributed to strengthening reconciliation with the United States. His speech at a joint session of the US congress in April 2015 where he expressed ‘repentance’ for all US soldiers who died in the Pacific War, then-US president Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016 and Abe’s reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbour in December 2016 should be remembered as key achievements in the history of US–Japan relations.
Despite his nationalist orientation, Abe practiced balanced and pragmatic diplomacy. This was perhaps best on display in his approach to China, relations with which were turbulent when Abe began his second stint as prime minister. In September 2012, then-Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan had nationalised the disputed Senkaku Islands. The Chinese government rebuked the move and dispatched coast guard vessels to waters around the islands.
After strengthening Japan’s coastal defences, Abe slowly initiated a dialogue between the two administrations that included meetings with President Xi Jinping. But Xi’s first official visit to Japan, set to take place in 2020, was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the ‘comfort women’ issue, Abe reached an agreement with then South Korean president Park Geun-Hye in December 2015 to set up a new fund with Japanese budgetary contributions. The agreement included a statement of remorse nearly identical to the 1993 Kono Statement — the most explicit apology on this issue so far from Japan.
Abe also expended considerable energy to improve ties with Moscow and conclude a peace treaty resolving territorial issues. But despite promising concessions in 2018, Abe could not deliver a reciprocal move from Vladimir Putin. Abe later recalled his regret at missing what he felt was a window of opportunity.
Abe will also be remembered for his support for multilateralism. Based on his notion of ‘proactive peace diplomacy’, Abe helped shape the messaging behind and framing of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and helped revive the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad).
Japan will be hard pressed to find a politician who is able to engender so many concrete outcomes as Abe did in his eight years. After his retirement in 2020, he became the chairman of the largest LDP faction, Seiwakai, and continued to exert influence on Japan’s foreign security policy.
In the days after Abe’s death, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida achieved a very comfortable upper house election result in July 2022. This will give him at least three years to help realise the plans Abe put into motion.
Kishida is the chair of Kochikai — generally recognised as a ‘dove faction’. He should keep in mind that it was Masayoshi Ohira, the former chairman of this faction, who created the notion of comprehensive security (military and economic) that embraced China, the United States, ASEAN, India and Japan.
Launching a new comprehensive security arrangement may be an opportunity to take advantage of Abe’s legacy. Adequately handling difficult issues, such as offensive security policy or smoothing out history issues with South Korea, may be areas where Kishida may pursue his agenda inspired by Abe’s creativity.
Kazuhiko Togo is Visiting Professor at the Global Centre for Asian and Regional Research, University of Shizuoka. He was formerly Director General of the Treaties Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan.
The post Carrying the torch of Abe’s legacy first appeared on News JU.