Author: Editorial Board, ANU
On 8 July 2022, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was gunned down while giving a campaign speech in support of candidates for the 10 July upper house election. The killing of Japan’s longest serving prime minister shocked Japan and the world, and cast a sombre shadow over the election.
Given Abe’s towering stature over Japanese politics and foreign policy, including influence over his successors as head of the largest faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), his death also raised questions about the future direction of Japan.
Shock over the assassination was magnified by the fact that gun crime is exceedingly rare in Japan, which has some of the most strict and successful gun laws in the world. The killing has been perceived as an act of terror and an attack on democracy given it happened on the campaign trail. Japan’s strict election campaigning regulations mean that stump speeches at train stations and intersections in close proximity to the public are the norm and seen as promoting democratic accountability and engagement. Supporters and critics of Abe across the political spectrum were quick to condemn the crime and emphasise that democracy must not yield to violence.
The shock was also magnified by the unexpected motivation of the alleged perpetrator who blames the Unification Church for bankrupting his mother, and Abe by extension due to his support of the church. As Richard Samuels notes, ties between the LDP and the Unification Church go back to the 1970s.
Abe’s grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, and other LDP politicians supported the Unification Church’s expansion in Japan, used its members as election campaign volunteers, and protected the church ‘from prosecution by Japanese authorities for their often fraudulent and aggressive sales and conversion tactics’. Linkages between the LDP, the Unification Church and other conservative religious groups have long been a taboo topic left unexamined by the Japanese mainstream media, but are now facing increased public scrutiny.
Abe leaves behind a complicated legacy. To his supporters, Abe was a pragmatic realist who sought to build a strong Japanese state that could protect the Japanese people and culture in a dangerous regional neighbourhood and world. To his critics, he was a nationalist and historical revisionist whose obsession with increasing the power of the state led him to violate democratic norms and deny imperial Japan’s colonial and wartime transgressions. Both of these depictions have some truth.
To build a strong Japan, Abe sought to reinvigorate the economy through his Abenomics economic policy package, travelled tirelessly raising Japan’s diplomatic profile around the world, spearheaded geopolitical initiatives to balance against the rise of China and held the banner for free trade to lead the conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump withdrew the United States from the deal. He also centralised policy making power and control over bureaucrats in the prime minister’s office and sought to revise the Article 9 peace clause of Japan’s post-war constitution and move toward an autonomous defence posture.
As Aurelia George Mulgan notes in our first lead article this week, Abe will long be remembered for conceptualising and undertaking ‘the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. These security concepts have entered common parlance amongst regional and global leaders and represent a lasting strategic legacy’. For these efforts Abe has been lauded in many quarters as a champion of democracy.
Yet Abe was far from an automatic friend of democracy. Democracy was an expedient cudgel to build cooperation with like-minded states in the region vis-a-vis the rise of China, not an organising principle underpinning his foreign policy agenda. His unrealised constitutional revision ambitions included the addition of an emergency clause that would enable the prime minister to concentrate power in the cabinet at the expense of the Diet. His administration worsened already present issues with media self-censorship and further pressured the media to tow the government line.
Toward the end of his time as prime minister, he was dogged by several corruption scandals. Abe also came under fire for his historical revisionism, especially his denials that the Japanese state bore any responsibility for the comfort women issue.
Abe’s death leaves a power vacuum in the ruling LDP. There is no ready replacement who can easily fill his shoes as leader of the Seiwakai, the LDP’s largest faction. Abe’s nationalism was tolerated by much of the electorate insofar as he provided political stability and a clear economic promise, a combination that is not easily replicable by others.
With a comfortable win for the LDP in the 10 July election, and with Abe gone, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has the chance to make his mark.
On the economy, Kishida has promoted his ‘New Capitalism’ concept to create ‘a virtuous cycle of growth’ through better income distribution. But the concept, yet to be given any real policy substance, has done little to ease the pinch ordinary Japanese households are feeling due to ‘rising inflation and cost of living pressures’.
On the question of opening Japan’s borders to tourism, Kishida is likely to continue to take a circumspect approach. As Fuma Aoki and Yves Tiberghien explain in our second lead article this week, ‘while international partners, businesses, tourist companies, students and travellers are counting the cost of Japan’s closure’, public opinion remains lukewarm to anything other than gradual and cautious reopening.
On security policy, there are unlikely to be major changes. Japan will continue to pursue the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and engage with the Quad. The momentum that Abe created towards increasing Japan’s defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP and to adopting pre-emptive missile strike capabilities is likely to continue, but at a slower pace.
On the question of revising Article 9, Abe’s supporters in the Diet are vowing to fulfil his life’s ambition in the wake of his death. The election result means that ostensibly pro-revision parties (the LDP-Komeito coalition, Nippon Ishin and the Democratic Party for the People) hold the requisite two-third supermajority in both the upper and lower houses necessary to propose and put constitutional amendments to a national referendum. Yet Komeito continues to stall and limit the scope of potential revisions and argues that revision needs to be done in consultation with the people.
While Kishida himself has promised to pursue constitutional revision, he is unlikely to spend his limited political capital on any revision without broad public support. Though Abe firmly put constitutional revision on Japan’s political agenda, change still appears some way off.
The upcoming cabinet reshuffle in September will provide the first clues on Kishida’s intentions and direction, which aspects of Abe’s legacy he intends to follow and which he intends to change. Even in death, Abe’s influence may still cast a shadow over Kishida.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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