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Japan’s most powerful leader in years aims to reclaim his country’s place on the world stage. That makes many Asians—including some Japanese—uncomfortable
Japan’s transformation from an imperial aggressor to the world’s second largest economy and champion of peaceful ideals was one of the most redemptive tales of the 20th century. But nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, the pistons have stalled. In 2011 the Japanese economy lost its No. 2 status to China. Beijing is flexing its muscles, aggressively pursuing territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan’s population is both aging and shrinking. For all its high-tech wizardry, the country feels sapped of the motivating power that propelled its rise.
As Japan searches for its soul, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has positioned himself as a national savior. Powered with a rare electoral mandate, Abe, 59, has vowed to halt Japan’s slow march toward international irrelevance. Two decades of economic deflation and the lingering weight of wartime loss, in the view of Abe and his allies, have forced the country into a submissive crouch. It was time for some backbone.
Whether Abe is a galvanizing change agent or a nationalist legatee who’s driving his country back to the future, there is no doubt that he is Japan’s—and possibly the continent’s—most consequential politician in some time.