Shinzo Abe: A revisionist nationalist or stabilising leader
Remembering the prominent but controversial political figure
The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, on July 8 this year, sent shockwaves across Japan and the globe. This is no embellishment. World leaders expressed their shock. Japan is also noted for its near non-existent gun violence as a result of strict gun protocols, with only ten shooting instances reported last year. As a result, this comparatively low gun violence rate has carried over into the political sphere in recent years; Japanese politicians closely interact with the general public during elections, with security known to be ‘lax’. With Abe recognised as Japan’s “most influential politician of recent decades”, the fact that such a prominent political figure was murdered only compounded this shock.
The fallout from Abe’s assassination has been significant. Top Japanese police officials - Itaru Nakamura and Tomoaki Onizuka - announced their resignations after a probing investigation concluded significant security faults resulted in Abe’s death. Furthermore, the gunman’s - Tetsuya Yamagami - motive, was revealed to be Abe’s informal “links” with the Unification Church - an organisation recognised for being a “predatory cult”. Yamagami held a “grudge” against the group as a result of his mother donating more than $700,000, which left her family in “financial ruin”. This revelation has caused a firestorm in Japanese politics, disclosing the true extent of Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) politicians’ ties with the Unification Church. A Kyodo News survey has since found more than 100 of Japan's 712 Diet parliamentarians held links with the Unification Church - nearly 80% of these 100-plus politicians are LDP members. Since Abe’s death, it has been revealed that Cabinet's disapproval rose to 41 per cent (up 17 points since July), whilst the hashtag “the LDP is disgusting” started trending on Japanese Twitter. Interestingly, the announcement of a state funeral (for 27 September) only added to domestic division, with recent polls indicating 62 per cent of the Japanese public oppose such a move. Subsequent protests - including one demonstrator who set themself on fire - object to the aforementioned scandal, cost and use of taxpayer funds, as well as entrenching Abe’s nationalistic legacy.
Amidst this backdrop, more than 190 foreign delegations and 50 head-of-state level VIPs attended the State Funeral. These contrasting attitudes - negative domestically; supportive internationally - invite a greater reflection of Shinzo Abe’s legacy.
Abe’s Family Influence
Two synonymous features of Shinzo Abe’s political legacy include: (1) evoking a conservative-nationalist agenda, which sought to instil Japanese self-confidence; and (2) his “sixth sense in foreign policy”. It is clear that Abe’s family background significantly shaped this political direction. On 21 September 1954, Abe was born into a prominent political family; his grandfather - Nobusuke Kishi - was a former PM, whilst his father - Abe Shintaro - was a foreign minister. The Iconoclast, a 2020 biography of Abe’s political career by Tobias S. Harris explores the many influences - social, cultural, political, economic, demographic - on Abe, but in particular that of his grandfather - a suspected war criminal - who sought to re-establish Japan’s sovereignty. This too became Abe’s own political goal. His father was of equal significance, impressing upon him “the importance of building trust with foreign leaders”. Abe’s relationship-building is recognised as one of his greatest achievements, evidenced by his ability to foster working relations with a wide range of leaders - from Malcolm Turnbull to Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.
A revisionist or stabilising leader?
Abe’s conservative-nationalist ideals made him a divisive figure. It is for this reason why critical analyses are important; they reflect the discord surrounding his complex legacy. This is important to note in light of criticisms directed at Western media for “eulogising” Abe as a “global statesman”. Indeed, Abe’s historical revisionism of Japan’s colonial past, as well as his six visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, have hindered relations with both China and (more significantly) South Korea. The Yasukuni Shrine honours those who have died in the service of Japan since 1869. This includes 14 convicted ‘Class A’, as well as 1,000 executed ‘Class B’ and ‘C’ war criminals - having been inducted in a secret ceremony in 1978. It was this act that has made Yasakuni so contentious, as encapsulated by this recent statement from the South Korean foreign ministry: it “glorifies Japan’s past war of aggression and enshrines war criminals”. Abe did, however, refrain from visiting the shrine for the remainder of his tenure in light of the controversial 2013 visit.
Abe’s conservative-nationalist agenda proved controversial domestically too. The ‘Abe Doctrine’ - which sought to move away from state ‘pacifism’ by “revamping” Japan’s security policies and institutions - provides the most prominent example. A brief contextualisation of the issue is needed. The US occupying force’ two-pronged aim to ‘pacify’ Japan (led by General Douglas MacArthur) consisted of democratic reform and constitutional change, the latter of which - through rewriting the Japanese constitution - has been of most significance, and resulting in this key phrase in Article 9: “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”. The “pacifist clause” subsequently confined Japan’s military posture to self-defence. It was this subversionary ideal that fuelled Abe’s ambition to re-establish Japan’s sovereignty. Put simply, Abe viewed Article 9 as a relic of history that continues to thwart Japan from realising its true potential. However, efforts to alter the status-quo have been met by considerable public resistance, so much so that constitutional revision became a ‘bridge-too-far’. Other notable domestic controversies included ‘Abenomics’, which resulted in increased socioeconomic disparities, whilst his hypernationalism and close-links with right-wing groups proliferated social problems including hate crime and concerns for freedom of speech.
Despite acknowledging the public concerns surrounding Abe’s conservative-nationalist agenda, one cannot refrain from the fact that Abe was Japan’s longest serving PM. Japanese politics had been in constant flux before Abe’s second term, having had 16 PMs between 1989 and 2012, averaging 538 day-terms; he remained in office for more than 2,800 days. This longevity perfused credibility both domestically and internationally, and “restored Japan to the world stage”.
A “conviction politician” may therefore be the most apt description for Shinzo Abe.
Broader Implications: Reinvigorating the ‘balance of power’ in the Indo-Pacific and Australia-Japan relations
Arguably, Abe’s insistence on a regional security paradigm has been most consequential for security dynamics within the Indo-Pacific. His ‘Conference of Two Seas’ speech, in 2007, marked the first reference to a “strategic global partnership” consisting of four key countries in “broader Asia”: the US, Japan, India & Australia. In 2012, Abe yet again emphasised a regional security paradigm, compiling an essay reaffirming the importance of a “democratic Asian security diamond” to counteract a “Lake Beijing” from eventuating. Such advocacy has been pivotal to both the formation and reinvigoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, otherwise known as the QUAD.
In reflecting on Australia, Abe contributed considerably to Australia-Japan relations. During his first term, Abe “signed the foundational” Japan–Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation with John Howard, enabling comprehensive engagement between the two countries. Furthermore, Abe and former Australian PM Tony Abbott held a particularly strong rapport, with both overseeing the formation of a ‘special relationship’ and the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement in 2014. Abe therefore laid the foundations and capitalised on both countries' ever-growing convergence of interests epitomised by maintaining the rules-based order. As a result, “Australia’s relationship with Japan has never been more close”.
For a figure synonymous with division and controversy, it seems pertinent that Abe’s state funeral is clouded in discord. Shinzo Abe will nonetheless remain Japan’s “most influential politician of recent decades” due to his political longevity and impact on a global scale. The State Funeral is due recognition of this.
Patrick Hession is undertaking a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne, having completed his undergraduate with a double-major in Politics and Asian Studies. He has a keen interest in Australia’s international affairs, particularly within the Asian region, and believes in the importance of promoting discussion around Australia’s responses to these events.