Culture Politics

Shinzo Abe’s Legacy

By Colin McGinness 

This month in Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) voted in Yoshihide Suga as the new party leader, and therefore the country’s Prime Minister. Mr. Suga won the race handily but has incredibly large shoes to fill in his new role, taking over from Shinzo Abe after the former Prime Minister’s abrupt resignation. Citing health concerns, Abe shocked many with his announcement of early departure. Having recently become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japan’s post-war history, it was assumed that he would continue in his post at least until the next election in 2021. Abe had a profound impact on Japan, both domestically and internationally. While at times controversial, it is worth taking a closer look at his legacy, and how it will impact the future of Japan at a crucial point in history.

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After skyrocketing through most of the mid-20th century, the Japanese economy from the 1990’s has been through a prolonged period of deflation and slow growth. In real terms, this has seen a relative decrease in Japanese wages as well as a decrease in overall GDP. In an effort to combat the ailing economy, Shinzo Abe and other LDP leaders devised a set of reforms and policies that have since been dubbed ‘Abenomics’. In general, the policies were meant to revitalise the Japanese economy and fix other domestic problems, by taking a three-pronged approach. The first would focus on the printing of money and buying government bonds, in a process known as quantitative easing, to help create inflation and boost potential Japanese exports. The second ‘arrow’ would involve massive stimulus packages for infrastructure projects and government spending. The third, and most complex of the ‘arrows’ was aimed at structural reform, including the liberalisation of labour laws, the relaxation of trade restrictions and the diversification of the workforce. 

While much has been said about the impressive scope and vision of many of these planned reforms, not all of them were able to be implemented by the end of Abe’s lengthy tenure. Some notable successes however include a dramatic increase in the number of women employed full time, as well as an increase in foreign workers employed in Japan. However as the coronavirus pandemic has caused even the most optimistic of pundits to worry about the long-term staying power of the Abenomics reforms, and their viability in a post-pandemic world that is likely to be wracked by recession. 

Foreign Relations:

Following the end of the Second World War and subsequent peace agreement, Japan was explicitly made into a pacifist nation through its constitution. Particularly through Article 9 which essentially renounced the right of the Japanese nation to wage war or have a standing offensive army. Instead, the defense of Japan would fall upon the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which were originally extensions of the national police force. However, in reality, the SDF has evolved into the de facto military of Japan and its role has been expanded across several governments, but Abe’s government wanted to push this further. One of the main (and unfulfilled) goals of the Abe administration was to amend Article 9 of the constitution to allow for ‘collective self-defense’ and official recognition of the SDF. This never come to pass, largely due to public pressure as a staggering 69% of people opposed changing Article 9. 

Outside of expanding the role of the Japanese military, Abe also sought to build alliances with other pacific states. This has evolved most notably into security agreements with the US, Australia and India. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, commonly referred to as the ‘Quad’ provides channels of communication between the four nations and has led to enhanced security cooperation in the pacific. While the Quad remains informal and prone to starts and stops, it represents a clear desire from Japan to enter into further security cooperation in response to China’s rise and increased military expenditures.

Outside of military alliances, Abe also sought to increase economic cooperation as well. When the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty was subsequently not ratified by the US after the 2016 election, Abe prioritised creating a followup arrangement for those signatories that were still interested in developing free trade relationships in Asia. The revived deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) was nearly identical to the original treaty, just without some of the provisions that the American negotiators had insisted upon. At the time of writing, there were eleven signatories to the treaty, with six countries having fully ratified the agreement. While certainly a global effort, it signified and validated Abe’s desire to further integrate the Japanese economy into a network of free trade agreements. 

Abe’s Odyssey 

As the longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history, Shinzo Abe will certainly be remembered for his prolonged tenure and electoral success. However, will his administration and time in office be remembered fondly as a turning point in Japanese history as he hopes? Or will his government’s policies and stances be judged poorly given enough time? In truth, it will probably depend on who you ask. While he was unable to deliver on some of his goals in office, i.e. the return of islands occupied by Russia since the Second World War or a successful 2020 Olympics, Abe certainly brought changes to the Japanese political landscape. The staying power of those changes, or the impact on the country will be made evident with the passage of time.

Considering that his successor has pledged to continue his policies and maintain the status quo of Abenomics, Suga and his LPD colleagues must believe that they are still popular and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Colin McGinness is The International’s Foreign Affairs Editor.