Opinion | Shinzo Abe and Japan’s Revival

Opinion | Shinzo Abe and Japan’s Revival

Japan’s Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in 2020.



Few of Japan’s postwar leaders have been as consequential as

Shinzo Abe,

the retired Prime Minister who was assassinated Friday at the age of 67. Many will describe his legacy as “controversial,” which is true. But Abe’s gift to his country was to deliver the kind of controversy Japan needed, when the country needed it.

When Abe came to power the second time, in late 2012, Japan seemed adrift. Its economic miracle was long past, the optimism of the

Junichiro Koizumi

era in the early 2000s was spent, the traumas of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami were still fresh. Abe brought energy and national confidence back to Japanese politics and government.

After a brief stint as Prime Minister amid this malaise in 2006-2007, Abe rode back into office on a promise to revive Japan’s moribund economy. Abenomics, as it came to be called, consisted of three “arrows.” At his insistence, the

Bank of Japan

would engage in aggressive monetary easing. Tokyo would boost fiscal spending. And Mr. Abe would spearhead an economic reform and liberalization drive.

Whatever the policy merits—some arrows were more worthwhile than others—Abe’s overarching message was that Tokyo had not given up on restoring vitality to what is still the world’s third-largest economy after the United States and China.

The reform arrow has been more significant than many foreign observers realize. A nascent boom in mergers and acquisitions that could clear cobwebs out of Japan Inc. results in large part from reforms passed on Abe’s watch. He also used trade deals to promote reform in long-stagnant parts of the domestic economy such as agriculture. President Trump’s abandonment of the Pacific trade pact was a strategic mistake that hurt Abe’s reform project.

Abe understood that without a strong economy he wouldn’t achieve his other central goal. This was to normalize Japan’s strategic place in the world. The theme was for Japan to become a better ally to the U.S. and other partners by bolstering its own military capabilities. As Prime Minister he increased defense spending and broke through a longtime cap of 1% of GDP on military outlays, and after he stepped down as PM in 2020 he advocated for more.

He also launched a debate about the pacifist clause in Japan’s constitution prohibiting much military activity. Abe wasn’t able to push through an amendment, though he did secure a “reinterpretation” allowing more Japanese participation in alliance military endeavors. With China seeking regional dominance, this is no small breakthrough.

Even in the attempt, Abe forced Japanese politicians and voters to start confronting difficult questions about Japan’s place in the world. He played a similar role this year when he tried to ignite a debate about whether Japan ought to participate in nuclear sharing with the U.S. to deter regional threats.

Abe was not always as effective an advocate for these policies as he could have been. His nationalist tone, particularly on some of Japan’s terrible wartime history, stoked needless tensions with Japan’s Asian neighbors.

But no country gets the platonic ideal of a philosopher-king for a leader. If a country is lucky, it gets an adept politician with a plan to tackle the country’s ills. Shinzo Abe was that leader for Japan, and his country and the world will miss his influence.

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