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28 August 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:53pm

Shinzo Abe: Japan’s longest-serving prime minister stands down

His attempts to revitalise the ageing country produced only patchy and qualified results.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 20 November 2019 Shinzo Abe passed the record set by his early 20th-century predecessor Katsura Taro to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. On 24 August, he reached a new landmark: the longest continuous period as prime minister. Abe, who was also president of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japan’s postwar politics, had served a short, scandal-plagued term as prime minister in 2006-07 before resigning citing ill health, and then regaining the premiership in 2012. On 28 August, Abe held a press conference to announce his resignation – again for health reasons. And this time it looked to be for good.

The news marked the end of an era in Japanese and Asian politics. The scion of a major political dynasty, Abe’s tenure began more than two decades after the 1989 peak of Japan’s great economic and technological postwar rise; the 1990s and 2000s were “lost decades” marked by an ageing society and a stagnant economy. His eight-year spell as prime minister can be summarised as an only patchily successful attempt to revitalise the country, the world’s third largest economy, at a time when its neighbour China’s industrial and geopolitical heft has loomed ever larger.

Abe’s bid to inject new dynamism into Japan has been, first and foremost, economic. His so-called “three arrows” have been: aggressive monetary easing to force the country out of its deflationary slump, intensive government stimulus spending, and structural reforms including tax cuts, labour market liberalisation and deregulation. This “Abenomics” has had some success, including Japan’s longest stretch of growth since the 1990s and increases in investment and employment (albeit these also reflected the global economic recovery of the mid-2010s).

But broader efforts to overhaul Japan’s conservative corporate culture, making it more entrepreneurial and women-friendly, remain unfinished business. Inequality has risen. And the modest economic recovery has not inspired an increase in the country’s low birth rate; in a mark of its ongoing ageing process, Japan’s consumption of adult nappies has overtaken its consumption of baby ones. If the country’s stagnation no longer stands out so starkly from international comparators that is at least partly because “Japanification” (secular stagnation) has increasingly come to other wealthy economies too.

A second element of Abe’s project has been cultural. As Kristin Surak of the the School of Oriental and African Studies wrote for us last year, his economic reforms have been accompanied by a turn towards nationalist populism. Under the LDP slogan “Nippon o Torimodosu” (Take Back Japan), his governments have stacked the management of the public broadcaster NHK with right-wing appointees, and supported the use in schools of revisionist history books. Abe’s tenure will be particularly remembered in China and South Korea for the offence felt in those countries at his 2013 visit and subsequent offerings to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japan’s war dead and is considered a symbol of Japanese military aggression. Two further initiatives – a bid to remove pacifist clauses in the country’s constitution and to restore sovereignty over Pacific islands to which both Japan and Russia lay claim – did not succeed.

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The third element has been Abe’s bid to revitalise and modernise his country’s geopolitical standing. He has challenged Japan’s postwar tradition of pacifism in deed as well as word; in 2015 he passed legislation enabling the armed forces to take combat roles abroad. He has made Japan an important pillar of the four-part Indo-Pacific alliance known as the Quad, tightening relationships with its three other players: the United States (including under Donald Trump), Australia and India.

Though that grouping’s role is to counterbalance China in the region, and it has risen in prominence as China’s might has grown, Abe also tried to find a stable if wary accommodation with Beijing  – inviting Xi Jinping to come to Japan in April this year for what would have been the Chinese president’s first trip to the country. That strategy has shifted, however, over the past year as the Covid-19 pandemic and growing Chinese diplomatic and military belligerence have fuelled Japanese scepticism about its larger neighbour. Xi’s visit has been indefinitely postponed. Abe’s stimulus package in May included incentives for Japanese firms to pull production out of China, while efforts to tighten and strengthen the counter-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific have accelerated.

Other than Xi’s visit, the other big event in Abe’s calendar for 2020 had been the Tokyo Olympics this summer (one of the enduring images of his tenure was his appearance, dressed as the Nintendo video game character Super Mario, at the handover ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in 2016). But the global pandemic caused the event to be postponed until next year and has also caused something of a political crisis. As the virus surged in Japan in April – to an admittedly relatively low peak of 743 new cases a day – Abe was reluctant to hobble the country’s economy with a severe lockdown. As New Statesman contributor Tom Feiling wrote for us from the Japanese capital at the time, that contrasted unfavourably with the tough response of Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike.

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Abe’s popularity took another dent in recently as, with rumours about his own health problems swirling, the infection rate surged again and has regularly hit or exceeded 1,000 new cases a day. That is still relatively low by international comparison, but the critical public opinion relative to the country’s performance make Japan an international outlier (for reasons my colleague Ido Vock explores here).

People in countries with more coronavirus deaths think their countries did worse
Coronavirus deaths vs percentage who say their country has done a bad job

Source: New Statesman analysis of Pew Research Center survey results and Our World in Data figures

Even before his resignation, it was already clear that the Abe era was drawing to a close. Under LDP internal rules no individual can hold its presidency for more than three terms, or nine years. So Abe would have had to stand down ahead of the general election due by October next year.

Still, his departure leaves a big gap. Japan’s opposition is relatively weak. Throughout this turbulent year to date the LDP’s share of polled voting intention has mostly fluctuated in the 30s per cent while those of its rivals have remained in single digits. The party’s mandate to govern continues up to the next election, which it can probably expect to win. But even within the LDP there are no figures to rival Abe’s stature. The party has chosen Yoshihide Suga, the former chief cabinet secretary, as an interim prime minister to serve through to the election. 

The the sheer stature and prominence of the Abe project, suggests that Abe-ism, or variants of it, may well long outlast his record-breaking tenure.