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Japan's Abe Brought Lasting Change to Country's Defense Approach


FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, on Sept. 25, 2017.

Both during and after his time as Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was shot and killed Friday at a campaign event in western Japan, had a profound impact on Japanese politics and security.

Abe served two terms, for a total of nine years, as prime minister – longer than any of Japan's other post-World War II leaders.

A political giant, Abe oversaw major changes to Japan's technically pacifist defense architecture, believing the country should do more to counter China's growing strength.

Abe had less success with economic policy. His signature "Abenomics" economic plan was aimed at, but ultimately failed at, reviving Japan's growth, which had greatly slowed in the 1990s.

The grandson of a World War II-era Cabinet minister, Abe came from a wealthy and well-connected political family. He was elected to parliament for the first time in 1993 at the age of 39.

After rising through the ranks of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, Abe in 2006 became Japan's youngest postwar prime minister. However, he quit the position after only about a year because of ulcerative colitis, a painful stomach condition.

An employee distributes extra editions of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reporting that Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot, in Tokyo, July 8, 2022.
An employee distributes extra editions of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reporting that Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot, in Tokyo, July 8, 2022.

Five years later, Abe staged a political comeback, beginning an eight-year term as prime minister that ended a period of political instability and brought lasting change to the country.

During that time, Abe boosted Japan's defense spending, expanded his country's alliance with the United States, and implemented major institutional reforms in the country's security establishment.

In 2014, Abe's government reinterpreted Japan's pacifist constitution in a way that would theoretically allow Japanese troops to come to the aid of an ally under attack.

In 2018, Abe created a National Security Council, which strengthened the prime minister's role in security affairs. Experts called it "the most ambitious reorganization of Japan's foreign and security policy apparatus since the end of World War II."

One of Abe's biggest challenges was navigating the complexities of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull U.S. troops from Japan and constantly complained that Tokyo was taking advantage of Washington.

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they play golf at Mobara Country Club in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, Japan, in this photo released by Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Kyodo, May 26, 2019.
FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they play golf at Mobara Country Club in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, Japan, in this photo released by Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office via Kyodo, May 26, 2019.

He handled the situation with a highly personal style of diplomacy. The two men played golf together five times, with Abe sometimes posting selfies during the games.

Abe resigned as prime minister for a second time in 2020, again citing the stomach ailment.

Although his leadership transformed Japan, Abe was unable to accomplish his goal of revising the country's pacifist constitution, which has not been changed since coming into effect in 1947.

Abe was a leading Liberal Democratic Party voice in favor of revising the constitution, which was drafted by U.S.-led forces that occupied Japan after World War II.

Article 9 of the document renounces war and bans the maintenance of a standing army, although Japan has long had a de facto military – the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Abe had argued the constitution should be revised in a way that would put the Self-Defense Forces on a more formal setting.

In the end, Japanese citizens' deep aversion to military conflicts, and persistent opposition from even some of his political allies, prevented any constitutional changes.

There is evidence the Japanese public might welcome a more conventional defense posture, especially following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaks to media at the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo, July 8, 2022.
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaks to media at the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo, July 8, 2022.

Under current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose leadership was supported by Abe, Japan has been on the front lines of a Western-led effort to pressure Russia.

Kishida's decision to send nonlethal military aid to Ukraine was only possible because Abe in 2014 relaxed a ban on arms exports, allowing for such shipments if they "contributed to global peace."

Japan's more assertive foreign policy has been broadly popular with voters, who are also concerned about security threats, such as North Korea and China, in their own neighborhood.

Until his death, the well-connected Abe used his political influence in his party to encourage a constitutional revision. He also supported the party's proposal to roughly double defense spending to 2% or more of gross domestic product over the next five years.

Experts say there is a greater chance that Abe's wishes will become reality, if the ruling coalition wins enough seats in Sunday's upper house election.

At the time of his assassination, Abe was giving a campaign speech for his preferred candidate in the election.

Despite Abe's assassination, Kishida has said the vote will continue, though it is not clear what impact Abe's death will have. Recent polls had suggested the ruling coalition was on track to make major gains.

People pay respects at the site where late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, near Yamato-Saidaiji station in Nara, western Japan, July 8, 2022.
People pay respects at the site where late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, near Yamato-Saidaiji station in Nara, western Japan, July 8, 2022.

Any constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of parliament – pro-revision forces already have a two-thirds majority in the lower house. Any revision must also be approved by a majority of voters in a referendum.

Lully Miura, a political scientist at the Yamaneko Research Institute in Tokyo, said Abe's death will have a lasting impact on the debate about Japan's position in the world.

While many overseas analysts may assume that Abe's assassination will accelerate Japan's movement toward a more conventional defense posture, Miura is not so sure.

"Without Shinzo, we don't have a visible figure to promote this agenda," she said. "There are not so many guys like Prime Minister Abe."

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