The legacy of Shinzō Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

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At the end of August 2020, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe resigned due to health reasons. A polarizing figure, Abe is a bit like Marmite – some love him, others not so much. Over the last few years, he’s been a close ally of Donald Trump, and sought to strengthen ties between the Japanese and US militaries. His catchily-named ‘Abenomics’ policy, an attempt to kick-start the Japanese economy, though initially fairly successful, has proved to have left quite a few issues to be cleaned up by whoever steps into Abe’s shoes. So what legacy, if any, will Abe leave behind?

Photograph: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr

Having served since 2012, and prior to that, in a brief stint from 2006-2007, Abe is officially Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Although eight years may not sound like that long — especially in comparison with Tony Blair’s 10 years, or Margaret Thatcher’s 11 — former SOAS lecturer, and expert in the politics of Japan, Kristin Surak comments that in Japan, ‘since 1990, the average prime ministerial stint has been 1.5 years’. The question, then, is just why Shinzo Abe has managed to hold out for so long. Abe’s lasting power, Surak states, is down to two factors: his use of snap elections, to push through controversial legislation, and his effectiveness at neutralising opposition.

‘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’, states Surak.

So in his impressive stint, what did Abe achieve? And are these achievements long-lasting?

With regard to ‘Abenomics’, Surak comments the policy ‘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. In the end, the Japanese economy never hit the 2 percent inflation target. The end results have been good for big corporations a 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.’

Shinzo Abe Japan
Photograph: Global Panorama, Flickr

Abe’s foreign policy aims have also been of mixed success, and somewhat contradictory, notes Surak, with ‘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.’ However, Abe was also pragmatic, maintaining ties with China Japan’s other East Asian neighbours. Abe had a heavy international schedule, Surak emphasises, travelling frequently and seeking ‘as many bilateral treaties and trade agreements as possible, diversifying Japan’s engagement with a huge range of countries.’ Despite this, Surak does comment that ‘Japan’s relationship with South Korea has become rockier across [Abe’s] tenure.’

So what sort of state has Abe left things for a new Prime Minister? Robin Harding, of the Financial Times comments that Japan’s challenges are now greater than ever. Surak agrees. ‘At the moment’, she states, ‘the scene is rather dismal. 

Interview with Kristin Surak was originally featured on Jacobin.

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