Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, leaves a polarizing legacy

FILE - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo March 20, 2014. Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe, a divisive arch-conservative and one of the most most powerful and influential in his country, died after being shot during a campaign speech on Friday July 8, 2022 in western Japan, hospital officials said.  (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayash, File)

Shinzo Abe, who died of an assassin’s bullet on Friday, leaves a complex legacy as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

Shinzo Abe was a political Blue Blood groomed for power. Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, he was also perhaps the most polarizing and complex politician in recent Japanese history.

Abe, who was assassinated on Friday, angered both liberals at home and World War II victims in Asia with his hawkish push to reorganize the military and his revisionist view that Japan received an unfair verdict from history for its brutal past.

At the same time, he revitalized Japan’s economy, led efforts for the nation to play a bigger role in Asia and served as a rare beacon of political stability before stepping down two years ago for health reasons.

“He is the most imposing political figure in Japan over the past two decades,” said Dave Leheny, a political scientist at Waseda University. “He wanted Japan to be respected on the world stage in the way he felt it deserved. … He also wanted Japan not to have to apologize for World War II.”

Abe, who died after being shot during a campaign speech, was 67.

Police arrested the suspect at the scene of the attack, shocking many people in Japan, one of the safest countries in the world with some of the strictest gun control laws. Near the suspect was a double-barreled device that appeared to be a homemade firearm.

Abe thought Japan’s economic successes, peace and global cooperation after the war were something “other countries should pay more attention to and Japanese people should be proud of,” Leheny said.

Abe was the darling of conservatives but reviled by many liberals in Japan. And no policy was more divisive than his cherished, ultimately unsuccessful dream of revising Japan’s constitution renouncing war. His ultra-nationalism has also angered the Koreas and China, both victims of wartime Japan.

This push for constitutional revision stemmed from his personal history. Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, despised the US-drafted constitution adopted during the post-war US occupation. For Abe too, the 1947 charter was symbolic of what he saw as the unjust legacy of Japan’s defeat in the war and an imposition of the victors world order and Western values.

This constitution renounces the use of force in international conflicts and limits the Japanese military to self-defense, although the country has a well-equipped modern army, navy and air force that works in close cooperation with the United States, Japan’s main ally.

Weak public support for the changes doomed Abe’s push, but the goal still enjoys support from his ultra-conservative supporters.

Abe bristled at post-war treaties and the tribunal that tried Japanese war criminals. His political rhetoric was often aimed at making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military and a bigger role in international affairs.

He was also a driving force in efforts by Japanese conservatives to whitewash wartime atrocities and push for an end to apologies for atrocities.

Supporters point to his efforts to raise Japan’s profile internationally and his proposal for a new order of like-minded democracies to counter the rise of China, which Washington and others quickly endorsed.

Abe also had a big influence on the policies of current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, pushing for increased military capabilities, including a preemptive strike capability.

Abe resigned as Prime Minister in 2020 because he said the ulcerative colitis he had since he was a teenager had resurfaced.

He told reporters at the time that it was “heartbreaking” to leave many of his goals unfulfilled. In addition to the failed constitutional review, he was also unable to address several other unfinished legacies of the war, including normalizing ties with North Korea, settling island disputes with neighbors, and signing a peace treaty with Russia officially ending their hostilities in World War II. .

Abe was praised in Washington for his efforts for a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship, which he saw as a way to strengthen Japan’s defense capability. Japan welcomes 50,000 American troops as a bulwark in the region amid tensions with China and North Korea.

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking hands with then-President Trump

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with then-President Trump during a trade deal signing ceremony in New York in 2019. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Abe charmed conservatives with his security policies because of fears of terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, and China’s military assertiveness.

But there has always been general public support for the pacifist constitution and divided opinions on the amendments within Abe’s ruling party. Many lawmakers preferred to focus on economic growth.

Abe said he was proud to work for a stronger Japan-US security alliance and to have led the first visit by a sitting US president to the bombed-out city of Hiroshima. He also helped Tokyo win the right to host the 2020 Olympics by promising that a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “under control” when it was not.

Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, aged 52, but his first overly nationalistic stint ended abruptly a year later, also because of his health.

The end of this scandal-ridden term marked the start of six years of annual leadership changes in Japan, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability and long-term policies. .

When he returned to power in 2012, Abe pledged to revitalize the nation and lift its economy out of its deflationary slump with his “Abenomics” formula, which combined fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms.

He won six national elections and built a solid grip on power, strengthening Japan’s defense role and its security alliance with the United States. He also intensified patriotic education in schools and raised Japan’s international profile.

Abe left office as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister for several consecutive days, eclipsing the record of Eisaku Sato, his great-uncle, who served 2,798 days from 1964 to 1972.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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