Shinzo Abe, ‘a towering figure’ whose death will change Japan’s political landscape

Shinzo Abe, ‘a towering figure’ whose death will change Japan’s political landscape
Assassinated former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Franck Robichon)

The assassination of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe has profoundly shaken the country’s sense of the natural order of things in an emotional upheaval that equals or exceeds how Americans reacted to US President John Kennedy’s death in 1963.

Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister who had continued to be a major figure in Japanese politics two years after he resigned from the prime ministership because of ill health, was killed on a street corner in downtown Nara on 8 July.

He had been campaigning for one of his party’s candidates leading up to Sunday’s election for the upper house of the country’s parliament. Abe had been engaged in a typical Japanese election campaign-style stump speech and meet-and-greet with the voters on a busy street event. (Nara was Japan’s first capital, 1,000 years ago.)

In a country where violent deaths from the use of firearms have been nearly nonexistent for decades — there was only one such reported death last year — news of Abe’s assassination has struck the Japanese population like a thunderbolt.

shinzo abe death scene

Police investigate the crime scene where former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot during an Upper House election campaign outside Yamato-Saidaiji Station of Kintetsu Railway in Nara, western Japan, on 8 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jiji Press)

It has profoundly shaken the country’s sense of the natural order of things in an emotional upheaval that equals or exceeds how Americans reacted to US President John Kennedy’s death in 1963.

The lead commentary on Abe’s death in the Japan Times distilled the essence of this, noting: “The massive void that Shinzo Abe’s assassination has left behind Japan’s longest-serving prime minister wasn’t just any other leader — he was a towering figure whose death has completely changed the nation’s political landscape.”

The paper’s coverage of his death added that the international impact of Abe’s death was also important, writing: “The murder of Japan’s best-known politician rattled the country and sent shock waves around the world, particularly given the nation’s low levels of violent crime and strict gun laws.”

abe hearse

A hearse carrying the body of slain former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his residence, as his widow wife Akie Abe and senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (right) bow, in Tokyo on 9 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kimimasa Mayama)

Commentators the world over have expressed horror at the killing, especially in vivid contrast to the extraordinary safety of the country’s public spaces, its trains, buses, and subways.

Japan is normally a place — as we learnt firsthand in living there for many years — where even preteen children routinely use public transport well into the evening, without the necessity for adult protection.

Repeated wins

Abe had been the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, first with a one-year term between 2006-2007 and then, masterminding a comeback for his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, driving an increasingly ineffectual Democratic Party from office in 2012, when he took up the prime ministership again. He then served as prime minister through repeated electoral wins against the nation’s opposition parties until 2020, when he resigned due to illness.

abe messages

People write messages as they mourn the death of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in front of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association office in Taipei, Taiwan, on 9 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ritchie B Tongo)

By the time he left office the second time, suffering ulcerative colitis, he had been prime minister for more than nine years. He became especially skilled at dealing with Japan’s international affairs — and the many foreign leaders he engaged with — as well as formulating an array of economic policies, nicknamed “Abenomics”, designed to reinvigorate a stalled Japanese economy and, then, political initiatives aimed at altering key features of the country’s postwar constitutional order.

In the end, the full achievement of these ambitious goals, however, proved much harder than merely articulating them. That critics could point to this seems in part due to the intractable nature of much of the Japanese economic condition.

Family of politicians

Right from the beginning, Abe’s entry into Japanese politics seemed virtually preordained. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, had served as prime minister and his father, Shintaro Abe, had long held senior party and government positions, and he had also been on track to become prime minister until a major financial scandal in the party forced him to resign.

Still earlier, Shinzo Abe’s family line reached back through the operations of a family sake brewery, and, still earlier, to a samurai lineage.

abe newspapers

People pick up newspapers in central Tokyo reporting on the shooting of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kimimasa Mayama)

The family’s political home base was Yamaguchi Prefecture, a part of the country that had been home to some of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s that ended the country’s isolation under the Shogun.

Before entering politics, Shinzo Abe had studied political science at Seikei University in Japan and had spent an additional year at the University of Southern California.

Economic reform

Once ensconced in office as prime minister, he turned his attention and talents to developing a major economic reform programme, “Abenomics”,  designed to respond to the malaise of the Japanese economy of the lost years following the collapse of the country’s frenetic property bubble.

In the background, and further spurring his economic policy goals, was the inability of the country’s economy to keep pace with the accelerating challenge of the rise and rise of China.

Abe’s plan of economic action had three key points — or, as they were often called, “the three arrows”.

  • First, there would be a loosening up of credit access and the lessening of the cost of borrowing —  with the country’s central bank reducing interest rates down to virtually zero — or even lower — to make capital more easily available for industrial and business expansion.
  • Second, there would be a new programme of expansive government spending designed to kickstart growth in the wake of the drift of the past decade-plus.
  • Third, his government would also launch an ambitious plan to lessen government regulations and bureaucratic controls over business decisions, making expansion and innovation easier and encouraging new entrants into the economy.

Further, given the growing concerns that Japan’s population was on course to shrink (and especially its working-age population), there were measures and exhortations designed to make it easier and more remunerative for women to enter — and stay on — in the labour force.

In later years, Abe would proudly proclaim two million women had entered the workforce during his tenure of office. This was where women had constituted a lower share of the permanent workforce than in many other first world economies.

International leadership

When the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was advocated by US President Barack Obama, Abe joined as an enthusiastic proponent, and eventually became its prime advocate when the US, during the Trump administration, retreated from supporting its own free trade proposal.

It seems reasonable to suppose, recognising the relatively diminished stature of Japan vis-à-vis global superpowers, and now that Japan was no longer the great rival to American economic prowess, that Abe understood the existence of the TPP, even without the US, could still be an effective tool for continued Japanese international economic leadership.

Abe’s advocacy for and leadership of the TPP initiative also fitted naturally with his reimagining of Japanese security and defence policies, and in finding substantive ways to provide a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

In retrospect, in many ways, Abe’s leadership was more successful on defence and security policy than it was with his economic programme, where many of his ideas remained significantly unfulfilled or underachieved.

Security and defence

Earlier than even many politicians in the US were prepared to move that way, Abe was active in urging a new security architecture for the Indo-Pacific region.

This evolved out of his understanding that an effective response to China’s economic growth should go hand in hand with a more deliberate and consciously framed security stance designed to respond to real, albeit still significantly potential, security threats to regional stability.

One tangible response to such developments came in the form of the establishment of the Quadrilateral — the Quad — a tacit security alignment that although not a treaty, has become more than just a handshake. It joins India, Australia, Japan and the US in an alignment that was strongly endorsed by Abe.

The Quad is now paying increasing attention to security in the Indian Ocean basin, in Southeast Asia and its adjacent waters, as well as with regard to security threats posed towards Taiwan and South Korea.

For Abe, this forward-looking security policy for Japan’s part of the world was also connected to another feature of his policy thinking — a thorough revision of the country’s national defence policies and guiding principles, along with Japan’s international role.

Heretofore, such policies had strictly limited the size and capacity of the country’s military (officially labelled the Japan Self Defense Forces in deference to the deep reluctance on the part of numbers of Japanese who regretted the country’s actions across Asia in World War 2) in accord with the wording and interpretations of the country’s postwar constitution.

Such provisions also largely precluded Japan’s deployment of its military (except in avowedly humanitarian missions) beyond the limits of Japanese territory and waters.

Abe was even prepared to entertain discussions about the possibility of stationing American nuclear weaponry on Japanese soil — even if not specifically advocating their acquisition by his country.

Not surprisingly, that triggered feelings of disagreement on the part of significant numbers of Japanese about Abe’s defence and security ideas (and towards him personally among some on the political left and those who were dedicated pacifists).

This stemmed from the undeniable history of the devastation from the atomic weapons that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in bringing World War 2 to a close.

Abe’s ideas on national security and defence were clearly controversial for many, and, just as clearly, were not supported (at least not yet) by a solid national consensus by the time he left office.

Nevertheless, his willingness to entertain such ideas, and to be prepared to act on them in smaller, more measured ways did move the needle on the national discussion about security and defence.

Shift in opinion

In the two years since he retired as prime minister, developments such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine are contributing to a growing shift in Japanese opinion about defence and security.

His advocacy led to the establishment of a national security council in the government that increasingly unified understandings about defence and security thinking with broader issues and strategies over trade and economics, rather than perpetuating the silo thinking previous prime ministerships had been prepared to accept.

In changing the texture and timbre of security discussions, it can be argued his positions have helped make principled Japanese nationalism more respectable — without the hangover from World War 2.

Tobias Harris, Shinzo Abe’s biographer, writing in the New York Times, said of the slain former prime minister: “He was a nationalist; he saw his country as engaged in a fierce competition among nations and believed that a politician’s duty, first and foremost, was to ensure the security and prosperity of his people.

“But he was also a statist, in that he believed that it was ultimately the responsibility of the state and its leaders to perform this duty. This is why debates about whether Mr Abe was an ideologue or a realist miss the point. Over the course of his career, he repeatedly acted in ways that he thought would strengthen the Japanese state in its efforts to protect the Japanese people in a dangerous world.”

Leading from the top

One photograph exemplified the way Shinzo Abe had asserted a new, stronger Japanese presence internationally among other world leaders. From a G7 meeting several years ago, there is the famous picture of Donald Trump being confronted, and lectured, by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the centre of that image, in the thick of it, there stands Shinzo Abe, arms crossed, with a look of deep concern on his face, very different to the impassive look usually favoured by Asian leaders.

During his years in office, Abe met dozens of world leaders at home or abroad, demonstrating his belief he could advance relations directly with other nations through relationships with their leaders.

Nevertheless, despite such efforts with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, solutions to several small, but symbolic territorial disputes remained out of reach.

He even gambled on building a substantive relationship with the mercurial Donald Trump, such that Abe became the first foreign leader to reach out to meet Trump — even before the new president’s inauguration had taken place.

Reportedly, Abe hoped to disabuse the new US president of his conviction that the American military stationed at bases in Japan should be substantially reduced or even withdrawn. It was Abe who made the strategic case for leaving them where they were, and that, in addition, Japan would continue to increase its own defence spending gradually.

Given world events as they have unfolded, including the missile and nuclear advances by North Korea and the increasing assertiveness of China, they seem to have validated Abe’s argument for a stable deterrent based on Japanese soil.

In his essay in the New York Times, Tobias Harris added: “His [Abe’s] vision of a stronger Japanese state was not universally popular; his zeal for changes to strengthen the state, particularly its national security establishment, often attracted sizable protests.

“Older Japanese remembered the wartime state all too well and were uncomfortable with rebuilding Japan’s military power, but young Japanese, too, mobilized at times to oppose his moves.

“Nevertheless, at the time of his death, it appeared that the Japanese people might finally be coming around to Mr Abe’s vision. Thanks in part to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a robust majority appeared to support higher levels of military spending.

“Even Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, a self-proclaimed liberal dove, has indicated his support for higher military spending to boost the capabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, a sign of just how much Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party came to share his vision during his 30-year career.”


In an interview with the Economist just six weeks before he died, Abe said: “I believe the impact on Japan and the Japanese people has been very significant. First of all, the reality is that the United Nations Security Council does not function when the country in question is a permanent member of the council.

“In Japan, it was a mainstream idea that the UN should exercise its power and work to prevent such conflicts or deal with them after they have happened. The Japanese people have had to face the reality that, if a country is determined enough, an invasion, an act of aggression can actually occur. What’s more, a P5 [security council member] nation made a nuclear threat.”

In response to the question, “What do you think your legacy will be?”, Abe answered: “Through Abenomics, we were able to escape from deflation — perhaps not entirely — but still, we managed to escape from it, and create more than four million jobs to grow the economy. Another legacy is changing the interpretation of the constitution, enabling the country to exercise its basic right to self-defence.

“Also, I presented the big vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Finally, the TPP [that multilateral Asian trade pact] and the EU-Japan EPA [a bilateral trade deal between Japan and the European Union] helped create open and free economic zones based on high-level, high-standard [trade] rules.”

Sadly for Japan, in response to his killing, another legacy will now likely come about as well. The Japanese police have admitted their security arrangements were seriously lacking during Abe’s campaign foray. They will now be forced to re-evaluate their longstanding tradition of politicians meeting citizens and constituents easily at street corner campaign events. Sadly, his death will lead to a greater distancing of politicians from their erstwhile citizen employers in Japan and everywhere else as well. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options