Japan’s Shinzō Abe Was an Uninspiring Leader Who Prospered by Default

Kristin Surak

Shinzō Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister thanks to the weakness of his political rivals. But Abe never realized his dream of rewriting the Japanese constitution to legitimize the nationalist militarism that was central to his worldview.

Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe, who recently announced his resignation, at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2016. Dick Thomas Johnson / Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Shinzō Abe has stepped down for health reasons after serving as the Japanese prime minister since 2012. Abe was a polarizing figure, who angered Japan’s East Asian neighbors (and many of his fellow citizens) with historical revisionism about the country’s wartime record. He tried to change the Japanese Constitution to weaken its pacifist thrust and wanted to strengthen ties between the Japanese and US militaries. In recent years, he was a close ally of Donald Trump. Abe also presided over an ambitious attempt to kick-start the Japanese economy, known as “Abenomics.”

Kristin Surak is a lecturer at SOAS, University of London and an expert on Japanese politics. She spoke to Jacobin about Abe’s background, his record in office, and his legacy as prime minister.

Daniel Finn

Shinzō Abe proved to be Japan’s longest serving prime minister. What was the secret — and the significance — of his longevity?

Kristin Surak

Behind Abe’s longevity, more than anything else, was the absence of meaningful opposition, both from outside his party and within it. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has enjoyed almost unbroken rule since it first took control in 1955. Since then, it has been thrown out of power through popular elections only once, in 2009, when the leading opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), gained a mandate from voters who were exhausted by LDP scandals, policy failures, and the merry-go-round of prime-ministerial duds.

The DPJ held power for three years, during which it first struggled against entrenched interests — especially within the powerful bureaucratic apparatus — to make any serious changes, then acquiesced to their pressure, and ended up accomplishing very little. The DPJ, branded as incompetent, lost over 80 percent of its seats in the 2012 elections, which saw the LDP sweep into power with its largest ever electoral victory in December of that year.

Abe had been elected party leader just three months before, and against all odds. No political pundit predicted that Abe, an uninspiring figure who had served for just eleven months as prime minister in 2006–07, would win again out of the field of over a dozen candidates. In a rare runoff for the LDP leadership, Abe floated to the top as a compromise candidate, and then rode the backlash against the DPJ to become prime minister before the year’s close.

Even so, no one expected to see him still in power nearly eight years later. Since 1990, the average prime ministerial stint has been 1.5 years, and Abe did little to distinguish himself in his first turn at the helm. His lasting power comes down to two factors.

First of all, Abe has made excellent use of snap elections to secure the primacy of the LDP — and push through controversial legislation — against an opposition in disarray. His campaign slogan of the 2014 snap elections captured the scene to a tee: Kono Michi Shikanai. Effectively, “There Is No Other Way.”

Second, this TINA-like situation also held within his party. Traditionally, change in government hasn’t come through the alternation of parties in power, but though changes within the LDP as different grandees vie for control. But Abe was effective at neutralizing opposition to him. His bulldog-like chief of staff, Yoshihide Suga, whipped much of the party into line, and then masterminded a retooling of the prime minister’s office to centralize power. This included, importantly, a shift that enabled the PM to appoint 600 key positions within the bureaucracy.

The result was that leading figures within the traditionally all-powerful civil service were indebted to the PM, which had the effect of reining them in. Abe also neutered his strongest LDP challenger, Shigeru Ishiba, by continuously handing him the most difficult ministerial portfolios to manage. It wasn’t so much Abe’s popularity that kept him in power — his opinion poll ratings have swung wildly — but the lack of alternatives. This is best evinced by the ever-declining proportion of the electorate who bother to turn up and cast a ballot.

Daniel Finn

What was the importance of Abe’s family background in shaping his political outlook?

Kristin Surak

Abe is often said to hold his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, in high regard. The same probably couldn’t be said of the residents of Manchuria during the years that Kishi led its economic development as a Japanese colony. An arch-nationalist who praised the Nazis, he was responsible for a brutally enforced high-speed industrialization drive, bolstered by the opium trade, in which conscripted Chinese laborers, whom he likened to dogs, worked under heinous conditions. Some factories had to replace more than half their workers annually because the death rate was so high.

Later, as munitions minister, Kishi oversaw the forced migration of thousands of Koreans and Chinese to work in factories within Japan itself. The majority of those forced laborers did not survive. After the war, Kishi was set to be tried for Class A war crimes, but the Americans, finding him useful, released him before he went on trial, enabling him to take part in politics again. By 1957, he was Japan’s prime minister.

Though responsible for engineering much of the pork-barrel approach to politics that would cement the LDP’s power for decades, Kishi is perhaps best remembered for ramming through a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States — a strengthened version of the Japan-US Security Treaty that bound Tokyo to Washington. In the face of demonstrations that saw more than a third of the population take to the streets, Kishi pushed the new treaty through the National Diet. The decision was so unpopular that he had to do it after midnight, with the police barricading the building to prevent the opposition from entering and voting against it.

Abe, of course, cuts a different figure, but one might observe echoes of his grandfather in two signature elements of his leadership style. First, Abe is a staunch nationalist. A sense of this can be found in the dithyrambs of his best seller Towards a Beautiful Country, penned during his first stint as prime minister, which would make any neo-Orientalist proud.

More indicative is his membership in an extreme nationalist group, the Nippon Kaigi. This is a secretive association that aims to revise the constitution and place the emperor at the center of the nation. It wants to build Japanese pride and prosperity without letting inconveniences like civil liberties get in the way.

Its publications promote family values (read: women in the kitchen), revive imperialist notions of racial superiority, and deny the Nanjing Massacre of 1937–38 in China. For several years, Abe was mired in a funding scandal around a nationalist private kindergarten, run by a fellow Nippon Kaigi member, that had its students visiting military bases, bowing to an image of the emperor, and reciting an oath of loyalty associated with the education system under the Japanese Empire.

Second, Abe developed a policy-making style that short-circuited many democratic mechanisms. With controversial laws, such as a State Secrets Law considered widely to be an “anti-whistleblower law,” he found it easiest to ram them through Parliament by guillotining debate.

Perhaps most egregious was the legalization of “collective self-defense.” Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution famously disavows war as a sovereign right. Yet — in a bid to expand the country’s military remit — Abe insisted that Japan should be able to come to the assistance of its allies. He hammered on with the rather implausible scenario that Japan might need to rescue the United States, the country with the world’s largest military by several multiples.

Nearly every single constitutional lawyer in the country — including the stooges found by the LDP — denounced Abe’s reading of the constitution as illegitimate. Abe pushed it through all the same. Notably, too, this change in interpretation of the fundamental law of the country didn’t come through the courts, as usually happens in democracies, but from the office of the executive, a move that is far more common under authoritarian regimes. But now it’s here to stay.

In this context, Abe’s biggest failure was in securing a revision of the Constitution. This was something that his grandfather Kishi had sought, and it has been part of the LDP’s platform since the party was established. But no one has succeeded thus far. Indeed, the Japanese Constitution is the longest-lived document of its kind to have gone without revision. There are several reasons for that, but one important factor is that the Constitution is very short and quite vague. It doesn’t go into much detail about institutions, or prohibit very much, which allows a certain flexibility for reinterpretation without amendment.

However, Abe wanted very much to succeed where others had failed. He didn’t just want to revise Article 9, to allow Japan’s self-defense forces to be recognized as an army, but also to revise nearly every one of the constitution’s 103 articles. Some of the proposals were minor, but others were much more significant, including a number of restrictions on individual rights and freedoms in the name of “public order,” the elevation of the position of the emperor, and the insertion of clauses to protect expressions of nationalist sentiment.

Article 9 enjoys enormous popular support, however, with many Japanese citizens seeing the renunciation of war as a definitive element of their national identity. This is shifting to some extent, as the generation that experienced World War II passes on, with newer ones less wedded to such ideals. But it still remained unclear whether Abe would be able to get at least 50 percent of the electorate to agree that the document — including Article 9, as everyone knew — should be revised.

As a result, Abe took a gradual approach, allowing eighteen-year-olds to vote and emphasizing the need to change the Constitution to keep up with the times. This even involved, unusually, marshaling an anti-homophobic, pro-environment stance for the cause, by suggesting that the Constitution’s specification that marriage is between a man and a woman is outdated (although Abe has come out against wives and husbands maintaining different surnames), and that the country’s founding document should also pay homage to the importance of protecting the environment.

Abe had been hoping to see this plan though in the wake of a successful 2020 Olympics, before his tenure ended in September 2021. We saw the first element of this plan scuttled in April, with the Olympics canceled, and the second in August, with his resignation announcement.

Daniel Finn

Can we trace a line of continuity between Abe’s multiple stints as Japanese PM?

Kristin Surak

The major policy goals that he set out during his first stint as PM in 2006–07 differed little from those of his second time in office. Fifteen years ago, Abe wanted to revise the constitution; he wanted to create an independent army; he wanted education reform in a nationalist direction (and successfully brought that about); he wanted to forge an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Abe fought long and hard to revive in his second stint.

The biggest difference between his two terms — and quite a significant one at that — was the set of policies known as “Abenomics.” Yet this has had mixed results at best. The combination of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reform was supposed to induce a healthy 2 percent inflation. This, Abe’s government hoped, would supply a jolt of adrenaline to Japan’s capitalist “animal spirits,” jump-starting an economy that had seen little growth since 1990.

In the end, the Japanese economy never hit the 2 percent inflation target. Meanwhile, the enormous sums allocated for monetary easing lifted the country’s already sky-high debt-to-GDP ratio to a stratospheric 250 percent. The end results have been good for big corporations and the TOPIX stock-market index, but not so good for smaller firms and households. The latter were hit by a 5 percent increase in sales tax, leading to a decline in disposable income and consumer spending.

The long-term effects of money printing on a massive scale — a technique that Japan pioneered after its 1989 financial crash, which has since been copied by Western countries — remain to be seen. But in the case of Japan, most of the debt is held internally, as Japanese households and businesses are the key purchasers of government bonds. As a result, it’s less risky than similar policies that have been implemented by Western governments.

If we look at Abe’s foreign-policy goals, there seems to be a tension between his desire to see Japan gain “full independence” as a “normal nation” — in other words, one with a recognized army — and the tight relationship that he has cultivated with the United States. This is an alliance in which Japan functions as a US client state — in the words of Gavan McCormack, as Washington’s “pooch in the Pacific.” Yet the two strands are not mutually exclusive. Japan’s attempts to boost its range of military activities align with US interests, too.

Although Article 9 of the constitution renounces war as a sovereign right, the interpretation of this clause has been eased over the years, leaving Japan with a “self-defense force” that is the ninth-biggest military in the world. The United States seeks “interoperability” with it — meaning Japanese military systems so similar to American ones that they can be effectively commanded and controlled, should the United States see fit — while the Japanese pay for their upkeep.

Daniel Finn

How did Abe approach relations with Japan’s East Asian neighbors?

Kristin Surak

Although he is a staunch nationalist, Abe is also a pragmatist. The importance of this to Japanese foreign policy often went unnoticed. Abe sustained the heaviest international travel schedule of any prime minister to date. Because of this, that he was the first head of state to meet Donald Trump after he was elected — Abe was flying to South America and threw in a New York stop along the way.

His globe-trotting was in the service of securing as many bilateral treaties and trade agreements as possible, diversifying Japan’s engagement with a huge range of countries. Among these countries, of course, is China, which is Japan’s most important trading partner, as Abe knows well. So for all of the nationalist posturing, he was also careful to maintain the economic ties between them.

Japan’s relationship with South Korea has become rockier across his tenure. There, the issue of the “comfort women” — women coerced into sex work in service of Japanese imperial expansionism — has been the biggest thorn. It’s been picked up by the Korean government, courts, and public as a key issue, in some cases testing the long-standing treaty arrangements between the two countries. Within this context, Abe was reluctant to acknowledge the heinousness of the experience of the “comfort women” and Japanese responsibility for it, adding to mounting friction.

Daniel Finn

What measures were taken by Abe’s government to address the COVID-19 pandemic? Can we draw up a balance sheet of its record thus far?

Kristin Surak

Japan has been fortunate to have seen much fewer cases than its counterparts in the G7. The government, however, has still come under great public criticism for handling the pandemic poorly. Abe saw his poll ratings drop from the 60s at the beginning of the year to the 30s now. Initially, the government’s concern was to ensure that the Olympics could go on. In this context, locking the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast and not allowing ill passengers into hospitals seemed like a good idea: it kept the official figures down.

Abe’s progam to hand out masks to the entire population — Japanese people regularly wear masks anyway when ill or during flu season — was a flop. So many were defective or went undistributed that they were swiftly dubbed “Abenomasks” and became the butt of media jokes. Yet lockdowns have been short, and the hard work of health workers tracing the contacts of those who were infected seems to have paid off. Despite its sizable population of 125 million, Japan has seen fewer than 70,000 infections and around 1,200 deaths. For a while, the average death rate was even less than the annual average, as people stayed safely at home. To put the Japanese figures in perspective, California, with a population of 40 million, has had 700,000 infections and 13,000 deaths.

The result, in Japan, is that the biggest casualty may be the 2020 — now 2021 — Summer Olympics. Japanese officials were hoping to use the event for a global relaunch of Brand Japan, with major companies contributing gigantic sums — in the hundreds of millions of dollars — to support it. Even if the Olympics do take place next summer, the occasion is likely to be more subdued than previously anticipated, and probably won’t bring the same economic boost that had been hoped for.

Daniel Finn

What is the current state of the Democratic Party’s fragments, and of other opposition forces to their left? Are they in any position to offer an alternative government in the near future?

Kristin Surak

At the moment, the scene is rather dismal. The most dynamic “challenge” to Abe has come from other members of the LDP’s most right-wing tendency. Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo and a staunch nationalist, defected from the LDP to challenge Abe in the 2017 national elections, convincing the rump of the DPJ’s right current to follow her, but that push failed in the end.

The remaining factions of the old DPJ — the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People — have agreed to merge next month to form a new opposition, but this would still leave them with less than a quarter of the seats in the Diet. Unfortunately, for now, it seems that Abe’s old slogan, Kono Michi Shikanai, still holds true: “There Is No Other Way.”