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The legacy of Japan's Shinzo Abe

Martin Fritz
July 8, 2022

The former prime minister has died from his injuries after a shooting at the age of 67. Shinzo Abe resigned from the top post in 2020, but his legacy has had a lasting impact on everyday Japanese life and politics.

Shinzo Abe
Image: Jorge Silva/REUTERS

Former Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, who was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan's history, died on Friday after being shot while delivering a speech at a campaign event in western Japan. He was 67.

DW takes a look at his legacy — and the impact that his political tenure has had on both the nation and the world. 

Abe's legacy

During his lifetime, Abe divided opinion across the country. To his critics, Abe represented a conservative Japan, downplaying Japan's wartime atrocities. 

In a speech in 2015, when Japan marked 70 years since its defeat in World War II, Abe expressed "profound grief" for war victims, but stopped short of apologizing.

Shinzo Abe speaking with a microphone
The former prime minister was seen as having a mixed legacy after his resignation in 2020 (FILE: December 2021)Image: Kyodo/picture alliance

"The defining element of his career was historical revisionism," said German historian Sven Saaler of Tokyo's Sophia University. Saaler cited the whitewashing of Japan's wartime past in school textbooks and the reintroduction of morality lessons as prominent examples.

Abe's promises of building a "strong and prosperous Japan" had been reminiscent of the imperialist motto of the Meji era: "rich nation, strong army."

Abe also sought to revise the pacifist constitution that he believed was imposed on Japan in 1946 by the US.

However, Abe was never able to realize his lifelong dream of reforms.

His supporters regarded him as a pragmatic leader who strengthened Japan's economy and partnership with the US "so that Japan would never be relegated to a second-class nation" — as he once said.

Abe sought to relax monetary policy and pursue high government spending, and struck major trade agreements with the European Union and the Pacific Rim countries.

During his tenure, Japan opened up to foreign workers, investors and tourists as never before, and proved that a developed economy can grow despite a shrinking population.

Abe resigned as prime minister in 2020 due to a chronic health condition that he had battled for years.

Shinzo Abe sitting in a chair
Shinzo Abe at the Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Tokyo after being elected leader of the major opposition party on September 26, 2012Image: Kyodo/picture alliance

Balancing superpowers

Abe also brought Japan closer to other countries in the Asian continent.

With his vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," the politician raised awareness across Asia of China's ambitions abroad and strengthened economic ties between Japan and the region through an aggressive investment policy.

"India and Southeast Asia welcomed a more assertive Japan as a proactive and stabilizing regional influence," said Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Asia Pacific Institute think tank, following Abe's 2020 resignation.

The historic power struggle between China and the US, which escalated significantly during Abe's tenure, forced him to walk a tightrope between the two superpowers. In doing so, he succeeded in both expanding the security alliance with the US, as well as protecting trade with China — Japan's most important economic partner — from damage through an expanded interpretation of the Japanese constitution.

Abe also successfully pitched for Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympic Games, promising that the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant was "under control."

But Abe had lamented an unfinished peace deal with Russia, with both Tokyo and Moscow still at odds over the fate of the four disputed Kuril Islands.

Shinzo Abe in a facemask greets with elbows amid pandemic
Shinzo Abe (left) was key player in the successful bid to have Tokyo host the Olympic Summer GamesImage: Kim Kyung-Hoon/AP Photo/picture alliance

Weak opposition

Abe's record length in office has been facilitated by weak and fragmented opposition parties, as well as his delivery of domestic economic prosperity and stability.

German Japan expert Sebastian Maslow said, "The establishment of political stability can be highlighted as his key success." He added that Abe had rehabilitated the Liberal Democratic Party after years of internal power struggles and financial scandals, making them fit to govern again.

The years between 2009 and 2012 had been chaotic for the conservative party due to the inexperience of its politicians and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Voters didn't dare experiment, and remained loyal to Abe.

Born in Tokyo in 1954, Abe was born into a politically prominent and wealthy family. His father Shintaro Abe was foreign minister, his great-uncle Eisaku Sato was prime minister, as was his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.

This article was originally written in German.