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Why Shinzo Abe Will Continue to Govern Japan for Years After His Death

6 minute read
Harris is a senior fellow for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, and author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not only came as a tremendous shock to Japan, but it also leaves a tremendous political power vacuum. Although Abe resigned as leader in 2020, he had not only reasserted his role as the champion of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) conservatives, he also formally assumed the leadership of his party’s largest faction.

Meanwhile, as a highly respected global statesman, he enjoyed a bully pulpit through the domestic and international media, a powerful tool to influence Japan’s policy agenda. This was never more clear than in February when he used an appearance on a Sunday talk show to raise the possibility of nuclear weapons sharing with the United States. Over the first nine months of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s tenure, Abe appeared determined to force Kishida to defer to his policy ideas.

A sizable victory in Sunday’s upper house election could help Kishida’s stature grow, but it is not guaranteed that he will be able to consolidate power among the LDP’s factions by himself—particularly as the shock of Abe’s assassination fades and the public remembers its growing discontent over Kishida’s handling of rising inflation of household staples. That said, after another election in which opposition parties failed to dent the government’s majority—the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party lost seats—Kishida will face little pressure from the opposition.

However, while the LDP’s balance of power after Abe’s murder could remain fluid, Abe’s policy legacy could be even more secure. Even before his death, his influence could be characterized by the phrase that Abe borrowed from Margaret Thatcher: There Is No Alternative. While not everyone in Japan—or even within the LDP—agreed with Abe’s vision for the country or policy direction, there have been no better ideas on the table for plotting Japan’s course in politics, economic policy, and international relations.

Abe and his allies managed this feat through a long-term campaign to reform the central government—particularly national security institutions and the prime minister’s office, but also economic policy institutions like the Bank of Japan—and by reshaping the LDP into a more ideologically coherent, top-down party that would be more uniformly committed to Abe’s goals. Older, more liberal lawmakers retired or passed away. New candidates recruited by Abe after his return in 2012, the so-called “Abe children,” were loyal to him and his policies. Would-be challengers in the LDP who could have questioned his vision were co-opted or sidelined. But beneath it all was the power of numbers: Abe belonged to the party’s largest faction, and he could also call on the support of a broader, informal network of conservative lawmakers from across the party.

Despite these efforts, Abe was not universally supported. He limited dissent within the LDP but could not completely stamp it out, encountering opposition to his trade policies, his agriculture policies, and his monetary policies. Some of his more controversial initiatives attracted major protests and forced him to spend precious political capital. In other areas, for example restarting offline nuclear reactors, stubborn public disapproval stymied his efforts. His six electoral victories from 2012 onward rested heavily on historically low turnout, particularly among independents, ensuring that the LDP’s electoral machine could deliver large majorities. His government enjoyed steady public support for most of his second tenure, but less because of his policies than because of the sense of stability that LDP rule provided compared to the opposition.

Nevertheless, on this foundation, Abe built a durable policy legacy that not only survived his government—neither Kishida nor Abe’s immediate successor, Yoshihide Suga, has fundamentally departed from Abe’s blueprints for foreign or economic policy. It could also survive the man himself. The durability of Abe’s ideas may have less to do with his political power and more to do with Japan’s narrowing options in an increasingly risky Asia.

In foreign policy, Abe started from the premise that China’s rise meant that Japan had no alternative to keeping the U.S. committed to Japan’s defense and the security and prosperity of Asia more broadly. He repeatedly took risks to achieve this goal, including bolstering ties with Australia and India—the other members of an increasingly institutionalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad.” He also made shadow competition with China in Southeast Asia a top priority.

Although he had tried to stabilize relations with China while in office—Chinese President Xi Jinping had been scheduled to visit Japan in spring 2020—following his resignation, Abe became an increasingly vocal critic of China’s human rights violations and alarmed by the shifting military balance in the Taiwan Strait. Last year, he argued that “a Taiwan crisis would be a crisis for Japan” and called for the U.S. to end its strategic ambiguity policy. Both Suga and Kishida have followed Abe’s approach to foreign policy.

The continuities are no less apparent in economic policy, where “Abenomics” continues in all but name. Abe’s appointee Haruhiko Kuroda remains at the helm of the Bank of Japan (at least until next year), and the unconventional monetary easing policies launched during Abe’s tenure remain in place despite pressure on the yen. “Fiscal flexibility,” the Abe-era term for fiscal stimulus in the near term and consolidation in the medium to long term, remains the Kishida government’s stance, although thanks to Abe’s legacy there is now a greater tolerance for new deficit spending. And both Suga and Kishida continued to use new-style industrial policies to promote growth in high-tech sectors. While Kishida has hinted that his “New Capitalism” could be more focused on redistribution than Abenomics, thus far it has looked virtually identical to Abenomics.

Perhaps over time, as new challenges emerge Japan’s, leaders will drift away from Abe’s policy frameworks. The consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine may already be forcing the Kishida government to think differently about energy and economic security, and Kishida’s choice of a successor for governor of the Bank of Japan will determine whether the Abe-era easing policies continue under a new governor.

But the memory of Abe’s successes—not to mention continuing pressure from his acolytes—will make it hard for Kishida and future prime ministers to change course. After all, Abe’s lieutenants and the young lawmakers whose careers he boosted will remain in positions of importance for years to come—defending his legacy and pressing to complete the work left unfinished. For the foreseeable future, there will remain no alternative to Abe.

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