The legacy of Shinzo Abe

Frederick R. Dickinson, ​​professor of Japanese history and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, offers his take on Abe’s impact on Japan, foreign policy, and lessons we can draw from his killing.

People queue to offer flowers and prayers for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at Zojoji temple prior to his funeral on July 12, 2022, in Tokyo.
People queue to offer flowers and prayers for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at Zojoji temple prior to his funeral on July 12, 2022, in Tokyo. Abe was assassinated on July 8 while campaigning in Nara, western Japan. (Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The murder of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by a gunman who fired a homemade weapon during a campaign stop shocked Japan, which has some of the world’s strictest gun laws. Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister before stepping down in 2020, died at a hospital. He was 67.

Penn Today spoke to Frederick R. Dickinson, ​​professor of Japanese history and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, to get his take on Abe’s impact on Japan, foreign policy, and lessons we can draw from his killing.

What would you say is Abe’s legacy?

He’s pivotal in post-war Japanese politics, not simply because he was in power for eight years but because his first and second terms are both very significant. The significance of his legacy became more prominent in his second term because he succeeded the Democratic Party of Japan, which had been in power for three years, which is unheard of in post-war Japanese politics. Essentially the Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for most of the time. The longest stretch in which it wasn’t in power was 2009-2012, when you had three Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers and Japanese foreign policy moving in a very different direction to the extent that Washington was beginning to get very concerned.

I always associated the U.S.-Japan security alliance with the Cold War, and after that was over I kept looking for the Japanese to precipitously drift away from the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and it was beginning to happen under the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan. The moment Abe came back in 2012, it was such a turnaround. In February of 2013 he met with President Obama, and his first great gift was to tell Obama that he’d deliver the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for him. This was America’s post-Cold War effort to try to maintain some authority in the Pacific. The U.S. was very serious about it for a long time, but the Japanese, particularly under the Democratic Party of Japan, could not deliver any kind of domestic support that had to go along with it. So, Abe’s promise to deliver the TPP to the U.S. was the beginning of a very close relationship, and that followed even with the Trump administration.

My area of expertise is the early 20th century and there was a similar phenomenon going on after the First World War. The Japanese were very important members of the coalition fighting against the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War and became a key partner after the Paris Peace Conference. You get the same sense with Abe in a post-Cold War era. Here we have Japan very much central to a liberal internationalist post-Cold War agenda. Even though Abe’s politics are much more conservative than Japan’s leaders in the 1920s, it’s a similar kind of effect, and that’s quite remarkable.

What were his top successes as a leader and his major failures?

I would say his biggest successes are his economic and foreign policy components which were not only central to a new liberal internationalist agenda after the end of the Cold War but in many ways were leading it.

In his first administration, he came up with the idea of ‘the Quad,’ or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific. He’s the first one to articulate it in 2007, and several years later the U.S. appropriated the strategy as its own. Even in the 1920s, when the Japanese were pivotal to a liberal internationalist global agenda, they were not leading the agenda in the way that Abe was. This geopolitical innovation also had a domestic political component: Normalizing Japanese defense capacity and institutionalizing a defense ministry and committing Japan to collective security in a way that, because of the postwar constitution, they weren’t able to before.

Economically speaking, his first administration was pump-priming the economy, something that everyone else took as a model after the 2008 financial crisis. Under Abe, you see an economic realm where Japan seems to be a global leader.

It’s pretty impressive it still stands tall after the so-called lost 30 years and Fukushima. Japan remains a pivotal world economy and global innovator. In many ways the Japanese are a canary in the coal mine. What they experience, everyone else in the industrialized world ultimately experiences.

In terms of failures, there was something that came up in the general election last year. The opposition parties decried the fact that Abe’s pro-growth policies exacerbated the disparities of wealth within Japan to a greater extent than ever before. This is a typical ramification of aggressive growth policies, and, ironically, current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in his candidacy for the head of the Liberal Democratic Party last year, essentially appropriated this criticism of Abe from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. He made it his own, saying that Japan needs a friendlier, less bifurcated society, and we need to work on that. I would put that as one of the great challenges that remain that Kishida himself is trying to tackle.

How did his death affect the elections held in the days after the assassination?

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its allies were already expected to win. But Kishida had a good working relationship with Abe and became prime minister with Abe’s help. Abe’s faction remains the largest within the LDP. Abe’s passing means Kishida must work to maintain the support of this faction. He’s starting this already; in a news conference yesterday, he vowed to push through all of Abe’s unrealized policies. Although considered liberal within the LDP, Kishida has become more conservative in the security realm. While Putin very vocally lamented Abe’s death because of the former prime minister’s relative lenience vis-à-vis Moscow after the invasion of Crimea, Kishida followed U.S. lead on severe sanctions after the February invasion of Ukraine. Despite Kishida’s concern for unrestrained spending, Abe’s passing means Kishida will likely move aggressively to increase Japanese military spending to 2% of the national budget. And he has promised to implement Abe’s dream of revising Japan’s postwar ‘peace’ constitution.

Does this killing say anything about gun violence in Japan, or is this just an aberration?

There’s been plenty of Japanese commentary drawing something from this violence, that we’re in a global moment in which there is low confidence in political leaders, low confidence in the media, and growing conspiracy theories, all things we’re very familiar with in the United States. The first reaction in Japan was ‘what the heck? This only happens in America.’ But attention has increasingly turned to the larger context of our troubled times. There were a number of obscure new parties that emerged in this last election, representing such hot-button single issues as anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiment. It’s very much part of a global phenomena of increasing anxiety over the pandemic, ongoing wars, and growing inflationary pressures. As far as we know now, it sounds like the gunman was a troubled man with a personal grudge who assassinated one of the most important politicians in postwar Japan. It seems so random, but there are those who place the tragedy in the context of a more widespread global angst.

How will history view Abe?

I think his legacy is secured because he helped define the path of Japan and a new liberal internationalist order in an era of significant global flux after the end of the Cold War. As a historian, I would put him on the same plane as those leaders in 19th century Japan who to this day are exalted as the founders of a modern Japanese state. Abe did not create a new state, but his aggressive growth policies, Abenomics, sweeping Japanese structural economic and administrative reform and hardline stance vis-à-vis China and North Korea, for better or worse, helped define the 21st century world in which we live.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about this moment in time for Japan?

Abe’s assassination is a tragic occasion to reflect on two points. First, despite all the talk of a new ‘Cold War,’ we are living in a significantly multi-polar world, one in which two of the most common economic and strategic priorities—quantitative easing and containment of China, respectively—were most systematically pursued in the 21st century not by the U.S. but by Japan under Prime Minister Abe.

Second, we should see this tragedy not as a sign of a peculiar Japan but recognize that, when it is not actually setting global trends, Japan often reflects significant global developments—in this case, the serious social, economic, cultural, political and public health difficulties that we are all experiencing. It’s sad that it takes a tragedy like this for the world to recognize Japan as such a significant bellwether.