In August 2020, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made the shock announcement that he was stepping down due to health reasons. At the time, Abe had just set the record for Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, breaking a string of one-year terms (including his first term, from 2006 to 2007). We are now 18 months – and two prime ministers – out of office, but Abe continues to wield political influence as the leader of a powerful faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He also continues to make public remarks offering policy suggestions — or prescriptions — for his successor, Kishida Fumio.
How has Abe’s eight-year term as prime minister reshaped Japan? And what influence does he still have in shaping Japanese policy? The Diplomat interviewed Tobias Harris, senior fellow at American Progress and author of Abe’s first English-language biography, “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japanabout Abe’s legacy and its impact on Japan in 2022.
We are a year and a half into Japan’s post-Abe period. Looking back, what do you think was Abe’s greatest legacy for Japan?
It seems increasingly clear that more than any particular political achievement, Abe’s greatest legacy has been more substantial global leadership for Japan. Under Abe, Japan was more active in many areas, articulating new norms for the digital economy and infrastructure investment; joining the TPP and then leading its revival after the American withdrawal; deepen strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and other regional powers as well as extra-regional powers like the EU and the UK; build a quasi-alliance with Australia; and upgrading Japan’s defense capabilities.
The result of these measures is that the United States and other partners now expect more from Japanese leaders, which was clearly a factor during the Ukraine crisis. Even before the invasion began, Tokyo was under considerable pressure to make meaningful contributions to the global effort to isolate Russia, even if it meant sacrificing a decade of Russian awareness (one of the less successful of Abe).
On that note, one of Abe’s foreign policy activities was to try to make progress on a peace treaty with Russia, and in particular on their territorial dispute. Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and Kishida’s immediate decision to join sanctions efforts aimed at Moscow – changed perceptions of Abe’s foreign policy legacy?
That Abe was able to devote so much energy to a diplomatic settlement with Russia is a great sign of the power the prime minister was able to wield in foreign policy. Abe pushed ahead with the move despite objections from some of his closest foreign policy advisers. Objections abounded, especially as it became clear that Russia would be happy to accept Japan’s economic concessions without changing its position on the disposition of the disputed islands in the Kuriles. While neither Suga nor Kishida – at least before the Ukraine crisis – had abandoned Abe’s Russian policy, neither shared Abe’s enthusiasm for personal diplomacy with Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine precipitated the end of a Russian policy that otherwise might have been petrified, with little result, for years to come.
There is no doubt that Abe’s diplomatic initiative failed, especially since the goal was ultimately strategic, to forge a friendship with Russia that would stabilize Japan’s northern flank and possibly prevent Russia and the China to get closer. While it was clear at the height of negotiations after 2016 that Abe’s approach was not working, the past few months have dispelled any doubt. What is less clear is where Japan’s Russian policy goes next, now that relations are more icy than they have been in decades.
Abe has repeatedly spoken throughout his career about revising the Japanese Constitution to give the Japan Self-Defense Forces more flexibility. The constitutional review never happened, but other defence-related reforms did. How has Abe reshaped the discussion of Japanese security policy?
Despite ruling coalition supermajorities in both houses of the Diet – without which constitutional review would be virtually impossible – Abe failed to push even modest constitutional changes through the Diet and through a national referendum. A big part of the reason it didn’t happen was Abe himself: Regardless of public opinion on whether to revise the constitution, polls have consistently shown there is a deep skepticism about editing under Abe’s watch, likely a reaction to the zeal with which Abe pursued editing throughout his career.
That said, he still managed to make significant changes to Japan’s security policy, even without revising Article 9. He overhauled a decade of annual defense spending cuts; he reinterpreted the constitution to allow the exercise of collective self-defense in limited scenarios in 2014 and passed laws allowing the Self-Defense Forces to perform these new roles, despite significant public opposition; and he continued the SDF’s shift to a flexible, joint, and mobile posture focused on the defense of Japan’s southwestern outlying islands.
Perhaps more importantly, I would say that for better or for worse, his government has made significant progress in building what I would call a Japanese national security state. Due to widespread anti-militarism in the post-war period, Japan has not had a national security state that looks and acts like its peers. Under Abe, however, the Japanese government passed a state secrecy law to strengthen penalties for divulging designated state secrets. He created a National Security Council, supported by a secretariat, which transferred a major foreign and security policy-making initiative to the prime minister’s office. The Prime Minister’s Office gained broader powers over senior administrative staff decisions, and Abe – along with Yoshihide Suga, who served as Chief Cabinet Secretary for the duration of Abe’s second administration, encouraged a group of national security officials who held key positions in the Kantei.
The Abe government has eased restrictions on arms exports, in a bid to bolster a national defense industry. Abe also challenged prevailing norms that separated prime ministers from uniformed personnel. There are other changes one could point to, but these have all been added to a much more top-down structure in foreign and defense policy-making.
Abe’s comments — for example, about Japan’s positioning in a Taiwan Strait crisis, or suggesting that Japan might harbor US nuclear weapons — often make headlines. What political influence does Abe still wield? Do his views and comments still have an impact on policy-making?
I have a chapter in the next edited volume “Japan Decides 2021” on this same issue. The short answer is that his power is substantial, both within the PLD as leader of its largest faction and the party’s conservative bloc, and in the political system more broadly as a media savvy figure with a pulpit. substantial intimidation. As his comments on nuclear sharing show, his power to set the agenda is probably greater than that of Prime Minister Kishida. Abe has consistently shown his ability to raise issues for the prime minister and his cabinet to address, both in foreign and economic policy. Freed from office responsibilities, Abe no longer has to carefully balance interests and ideals and can vocally call for policies even if they would be politically difficult for Kishida to achieve.
That said, Abe’s power for now is mostly latent, as Kishida’s approval ratings are strong and the next LDP election is more than two years away. The real question is what would happen if and when Kishida’s popularity plummeted, since Kishida’s survival could hinge on whether Abe and his faction were willing to support him (and, at the end of his term as leader of the LDP, to support his re-election instead of lining up a challenger). Still, Kishida was careful to listen to Abe’s views, acknowledging that an open break with the former prime minister could be costly.
Japan had six prime ministers (including Abe himself) in the six years before his second term in office in 2012. Abe’s successor, Suga Yoshihide, also lasted just one year in the post. . Do you expect a return to the “revolving door” of Japanese prime ministers?
I suspect we won’t. For starters, Kishida looks set to last quite a while in power. Once this year’s upper house elections are over, Kishida will have up to three years before facing voters again, and two years before the end of his term as leader of the LDP. This gives him considerable leeway to accumulate political achievements and, over time, to call early elections at a time that maximizes his chances of preserving the majority of the ruling coalition. And the LDP loves few things more than a party leader who wins an election. Like Abe, Kishida will benefit from a weak and divided opposition, and a strong public desire for political stability.
It is increasingly apparent that Abe’s premature resignation and Suga’s one-year term were aberrations – a function of the extraordinary political dynamics of the pandemic – rather than the start of a new trend. Of course, Kishida isn’t guaranteed to last. After all, he has the balance with Abe, a highly uncertain global economic environment and a deteriorating strategic environment to consider. Things can and will happen. But the lesson from Abe’s record tenure is that the public’s desire for stability means a PLD prime minister can put up with a lot without having to step down.