The murder of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday was shocking for many reasons: the rarity of political assassinations in an advanced democracy today; the lack of homicides of any kind in Japan, long one of the world’s safest countries; using a gun in a country that allegedly had only one shooting kill for 2021.
But perhaps most stunning of all was the killer’s target: Abe, who seemed to master the art of political resurrection like few leaders in Japan or any other country.
Abe was gunned down while campaigning for a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Japan’s upper house on Friday morning in the city of Nara. The 67-year-old former prime minister, who resigned in August 2020 due to ill health but remained a power broker within the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), spoke to the crowd for less than a minute when a couple of possible gunshots were heard. Abe sustained injuries to his right neck and left chest, and was… declared dead shortly before 5 p.m. local time.
Law enforcement arrested 41-year-old Nara resident Tetsuya Yamagami on charges of attempted murder before Abe was pronounced dead. In a press conference, the police said reported that Yamagami had handcrafted his weapon — pistols are illegal in Japan, and even shotguns and air rifles require a rigorous background check and licensing program — and that more homemade firearms were reportedly found in his home. The motive for the murder is not yet known Friday.
A political scion
Abe was literally born to occupy the highest ranks of Japanese political power. His maternal grandfather was Nobusuke Kishia staunch nationalist who served in the military-led government of Tokyo during World War II and was imprisoned by the American occupation forces for more than three years after Japan’s surrender in 1945. But Kishi was never brought before the Allied War Crimes Tribunal and was released in 1948, along with numerous other war politicians, as US interests shifted from punishing Japanese militarists to strengthening the country as an anti-communist ally.
Kishi was instrumental in founding the LDP, the conservative party that ruled Japan with few interruptions for the past 70 years, and in 1957 the former war criminal became prime minister — and a living symbol of Japan’s unfinished post-war political reconstruction.
Shinzo Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was an influential figure in the LDP itself, which rose to the rank of foreign minister during the economic boom of the 1980s in Japan. But it would be Shinzo Abe who would bring the family back to the top seat, to succeed the charismatic misfit Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the ruling LDP in September 2006.
Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to be born after the war, but the legacy of the conflict – especially the pacifist constitution of the American occupying forces, which officially renounced war as a sovereign right of the Japanese nation – was never far from his mind. . Inheriting the nationalist policies of his father and grandfather, Abe set out to revise the constitution, strengthen the country’s military — known officially as the Self-Defense Forces — and make Japan what he called a “normal country.”
He failed. With Japan still mired in its long post-90s economic slump, Abe’s year in office was… plagued by scandals within his cabinet and his own missteps. Both the political establishment in Japan and much of the news media (me included† I was working that year as bureau chief for TIME magazine in Tokyo) wrote him off as a lightweight who had risen to power mainly on the basis of his family name. When he suddenly resigned after the LDP’s humiliating defeat in the November 2007 parliamentary election to the upper house, citing ill health, it seemed likely that he would go down in history as yet another forgettable leader in a country that has been prime minister more than 30 times since 1948. has been changed. Worse, Abe’s resignation marked a decline for the LDP that culminated in the party losing power in 2009 to the opposition Democratic Party, for the second time during the post-war era.
Resurrection and Abenomics
Still, Abe remained behind the scenes, and when the Japanese public turned against the Democratic Party after the 2011 tsunami mistreatment and the Fukushima meltdown, LDP returned to power with Abe at the helm†
He returned to the premiership as a more seasoned and pragmatic politician. Initially, Abe set aside his desire to reshape Japan’s constitution and military, instead focusing on economic policy. After the collapse of Japan’s housing bubble in the 1980s, the country was caught in decades of sluggish growth, and in the aftermath of the 2008 global recession had entered a potentially fatal deflationary spiral.
On the fiscal side, Abe introduced more than $100 billion in stimulus spending and broke with Japanese tradition by adopting aggressive monetary stimulus. In 2016, the Bank of Japan ran negative interest rates in what became a successful attempt to break out of deflation. The most sedate, orthodox nation became a leader in unorthodox, expansionary monetary policy, with both the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank taking cues from it.
When Covid-19 hit in 2020 and threatened a global economic depression, countries around the world followed the Japanese model. By the time Abe resigned as prime minister for the second time in September 2020 — four days after setting the record for longest consecutive term in office — it seemed that the whole world, at least as far as monetary policy was concerned, had “gone Japanese.” ‘. † writes the economist Adam Tooze†
But even as he helped Japan out of the economic hole, Abe remained focused on his lifelong ambitions to remake the country into its nationalist image. In 2013, Abe ignored angry protests from China and South Korea to become only Japan’s second incumbent prime minister visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a nationalist symbol that honors the country’s war victims, including World War II war criminals. He increased Japan’s military budget and passed laws in 2015 that would allow the country’s self-defense forces to fight alongside allies in combat missions abroad. Abe repeatedly downplayed Japan’s aggression and atrocities during World War II, forcing his country to move beyond the war.
“We must not let our children, grandchildren and even future generations, who have nothing to do with that war, be destined to apologize,” Abe said. said during a speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It was a position contrary to the reflexive, if not always sincere, apologies adopted by most Japanese leaders, and it ensured that he would always be a highly controversial figure for East Asian countries like China and South Korea that suffered under the militarism of Japan during the war.
A realistic leader for a realistic era
For all his influence and longevity, Abe left office for the last time in 2020 a slightly tarnished figure haunted by further political scandals and accused of mishandling the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He couldn’t turn back Japan’s demographic decline and never achieved its cherished goal of revising the pacifist constitution. Although the Japanese military is stronger, it is still limited and is overshadowed by China — and so is Japan as a whole, in many ways, in East Asia.
Japan is many things today, but it is not yet what Abe would have seen as a ‘normal country’, which in his view at least meant a nation undefined by its recent past, a nation capable of engage in geopolitics and defense as other countries do.
But in many ways, Abe’s tougher, more realistic foreign policy has won the day in East Asia, just as his version of more nationalist and populist politics domestically predicted the rise of political figures like former President Donald Trump, with whom Abe has an unusually close relationship. relation. Abe, a longtime hawk on North Korea, warned of the rise of an expansive China, and rising tensions between Washington and Beijing have led US leaders, including President Joe Biden, to increasingly rely on Japan, not just as an economic ally. , but as a military one.
If America’s long-awaited “pivot point to Asia” fully takes place, Tokyo will be one of the key pivots — a historic departure from the decades when the main concern about militarism in the region was the return of a more armed and aggressive Japan.
Shinzo Abe dies after never fully completing his grandfather and father’s work. But political resurrection was his share of the trade, and he did perhaps more than any other political figure to revive a version of Japan that many—including many of his compatriots—believed was gone forever.