Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister, has died after being fatally shot at a campaign event in the city of Nara. He was 67 years old.
He is survived by his wife Akie Abe.
A staunch Japanese nationalist, Abe increased Japan’s international presence, brought stability to its politics and gave its people a renewed sense of confidence.
On the global stage, the two-term prime minister strengthened defence ties with the United States and corralled international support for efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. At home, he sought to boost Japan’s defence spending, championed an initiative to rewrite the country’s pacifist constitution and pursued an ambitious economic agenda known as “Abenomics”.
He stepped down from an eight-year stint as prime minister in 2020, but remained a dominant presence in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), controlling a significant faction and continuing to shape Japan’s foreign and domestic policies.
“History will record Abe Shinzo as one of the most important international figures in shaping the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific,” said Rory Medcalf, who heads the National Security College at the Australian National University.
“He greatly improved his nation’s ability to protect its security interests and brought strategy to Japanese diplomacy.”
Born in 1954 to an elite Tokyo family that included a father who was a former foreign minister and a grandfather who was a former prime minister, Abe was a lifelong conservative. He was first elected to parliament in 1993 and took office as Japan’s youngest ever prime minister in 2006. But he resigned just a year later, shortly after a disastrous showing for his party in national elections. He cited ill health for his departure.
Abe returned to the top job in 2012, ending a turbulent period in which Japan had six prime ministers in as many years. At the time, he promised to lift Japan out of its “severe situation” and protect its “beautiful” land, seas and people.
At the helm of Japan’s government, Abe sought closer ties with Washington, including by fostering a close relationship with former US President Donald Trump to protect the two countries’ defence alliance from the latter’s “America-first” policies.
Abe also played a key role in the revival of the Quad grouping, an informal security alliance comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia, that was aimed at blunting China’s economic and military might in the Indo-Pacific region. The grouping now carries out regular military exercises and is promising to help developing nations address their maritime security and infrastructure needs.
“Abe led the way in building coalitions to protect democracies, a rules-based order and the rights of smaller nations, under the banner of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Indeed, working closely with Australia, he was decisive in shifting US policy in this direction,” said Medcalf. “He was the most committed architect of the Quad and other ways to set limits to China’s coercive power, so the whole region owes him a debt of gratitude.”
Abe was also a strong supporter of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own, but had angered China, North Korea and South Korea with his ultranationalist rhetoric that some critics said harkened to the ethno-nationalist policies of the Japanese empire. In 2013, he also came under fire for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial military memorial to Japanese troops, including war criminals.
Abe visited the shrine again after his resignation in 2020.
Strong armed forces
Domestically, he sought to boost Japan’s defence, by amending laws allowing Japanese troops to fight abroad for the fight time since World War II and scrapping a longtime military spending cap, previously held at one percent of GDP.
But ultimately, he failed to increase military spending dramatically, and also failed to achieve his long-held goal of revising the US-drafted pacifist constitution. In recent years, however, in the face of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping, support for Abe’s defence policies among the Japanese public appears to be growing.
His signature domestic policy was the “Abenomics” programme that attempted to tackle a two-decade economic slump with aggressive monetary easing and fiscal spending. While lauded internationally on its debut, Abenomics proved to be only somewhat successful in its stated goals, said Robert Madsen, a macroeconomist and frequent lecturer at Stanford Law School.
While Japan successfully loosened its monetary policymaking, making it easier for the country to export goods, Abenomics failed in its efforts to address the national debt and reform structural issues in the Japanese economy and corporate culture. Where Abenomics had its greatest impact, Madsen said, was in lifting a deep sense of malaise that had set over Japan during its long economic slump.
“Where he had a real impact was the sense of confidence in the Japanese people, because after 20 years of depression when they saw the economy growing more rapidly, they grew more confident. That fed into a number of other policies, and this is where I think he made more of a difference,” he said.
“Japan from the 1990s on to early 2010s was so concerned with its domestic problems that they really didn’t do a lot abroad, and Abe brought this vision of Japan playing a more active role, engaging more internationally which frankly represented a major shift.”
Abe was also instrumental in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, but did not get to preside over the competition, which was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former prime minister stepped down in September of that year, again citing health issues from a chronic condition called ulcerative colitis.
Abe’s death, for which a motive is not yet clear, will without a doubt have a seismic impact on Japan, said Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an adjunct professor at Temple University Japan.
“Shinzo Abe was the one of the most influential and transformative politicians in post-war Japan. He made Japan a significant player not only in the region but on the global stage,” he said. “His legacy will especially be felt in the defence, security and foreign policy spheres, where Japan has since adopted a much more assertive posture.”