The resignation last week of Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, drew headlines worldwide but surprised few who follow the politics in his country. Still, in a place where the average tenure of a prime minister is one or two years, Abe was an exception. Not only was his total time in political office (almost nine years) and also his current term as prime minister (since December 2012) the longest in Japanese history – he was also unusually active and decisive.
Immediately upon taking office he announced a vigorous economic policy, which was dubbed “Abenomics,” and concurrently devoted much attention to foreign policy, endeavoring to entrench Japan’s international standing even as it continued to rely primarily on the United States for support.
Abe’s domestic and external policies were both influenced by his worldview. He is a declared conservative, nationalist politician, probably the most extreme prime minister since the end of World War II. As such, he has advocated a tough approach to North Korea and China, and favored a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which he sought to interpret in a way that he saw as being consistent with contemporary reality.
As part of his work to augment his country’s international reputation, Abe was also directly involved in the efforts to win the nomination for hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, the preparations for which quickly became the central event in the country’s life in recent years. Following Tokyo’s abysmal failure in 2009 in the competition to host the 2016 Games, Abe immersed himself in the effort and put his personal prestige on the line. Many Japanese recall fondly his trip to Buenos Aires in 2013 to attend the meeting of the International Olympic Committee and his extroverted participation in the event. Tokyo won by a landslide, and the next day Abe announced an unprecedented plan of construction and infrastructure works, which generated great expectations, and this just two years after the disaster at Fukushima.
In retrospect, the decision to hold the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo was the high point of his tenure. In the years that followed, many of the hopes that it raised began to fade. In other areas, too, an examination of Abe’s policy does not turn up achievements that one might expect from such a lengthy term of office. Abenomics did not change Japan’s economic situation, especially since Abe has not introduced the structural reforms it was meant to include. Moreover, the premier has done nothing to alter the course of demographic collapse toward which Japan is heading: At the current rate, by 2030 the country’s population will be 12 million below the zenith reached in 2007, of some 128 million.
Diplomatically and militarily, Japan’s status has changed little, and Abe’s thrust to revise the constitution also failed. In addition, the waning years of his tenure have been marked by frequent natural disasters, particularly powerful floods, along with the coronavirus pandemic that battered the economy and sealed the fate of the Olympic Games, at least for the time being.
On the other hand, Abe did not prove a total disappointment, either. Politically, and also economically, Japan’s overall deterioration seemed to be halted in his first years in office. That’s not insignificant for a country that had long felt itself to be in decline. In light of his long-term survival in politics, many have wondered in recent years whether Abe fit the type of the “strong” leader that’s consistent with the model that has evolved lately in many countries, from Russia and China to and even Israel. Many of the characteristics of his rule – his political clout, his lengthy tenure, his tendency toward hawkish nationalism – pointed in that direction. But did Abe possess anything of the power and survivability of the incumbent leaders of the countries mentioned above? Clearly he was an extraordinary political fox in the domestic arena and relatively charismatic, but in no way did he transcend the immediate landscape.
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Like most Japanese premiers in recent times, Abe is a scion of a family deeply rooted in the political “aristocracy,” and a product of an intra-party system of balances. There is no doubt that in the latter stages of an extraordinary disaster, in a period of economic regression and fears of China’s ascendancy, the Japanese public yearned for a strong leader, and he was able to fill that need. However, in a democracy – and Japan is definitely a democracy – even strong leaders have an expiry date. Given all of this, Abe can be considered a strong leader, but only by Japanese standards. His personal power never approached that of Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, principally because he lacked the power to change the rules of the game. From an international perspective, a leader who is unable to change the rules of the game is not truly a powerful leader.
In this context, it’s useful to dispel the fog around his resignation. Even though the tenure of a prime minister in Japan is unlimited, the position of president of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is limited to two three-year terms, and when the party is in power, that position constitutes a key stepping stone to the premiership. Two years ago, Abe managed to bend the rules a little and win a third term, but it was set to end in 2021 in any case.
On the other hand, low levels of public support did not impel him to resign in the past, and the chronic bowel disease from which he has suffered for years – which has been mentioned as the reason for his resignation – did not prevent him from functioning until now. Nevertheless, last week, one day after he broke the record of his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, for the longest consecutive period in office, the conditions for terminating his tenure ripened.
With his place in Japan’s national history guaranteed, a short remaining tenure, fading public support, a bothersome illness and Olympic Games that would likely take place under his successor, Abe saw no point in going on.
For those who yearn to see in his departure a personal example, it’s important to point out that Abe did not “take responsibility” for his country’s current predicament – because he did not fail, not in his eyes nor in the eyes of his electorate. In fact, the image some Israelis have of the assumption of responsibility in Japan, even leading to suicide in certain cases, is a complete myth. It’s rare for Japanese politicians to take responsibility of their own volition for their deeds, and even involvement in cases of corruption, including convictions in court, do not prevent them from remaining in office. Generally in Japan, a semblance of assuming responsibility occurs due to internal pressures and fear for the party’s fate. That is not the case here.
From a domestic perspective, we may yet come to miss Abe. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu parted from him in an official statement as an old friend, and not by chance. Abe’s two visits to Jerusalem constitute half of all the visits to Israel ever made by Japanese prime ministers. At the same time, in practice, Japan’s cautious and reserved policy toward Israel remained unchanged, as is seen in relatively stationary trade relations, the low number of Japanese tourists visiting Israel and Japan’s partial voting record in the United Nations under Abe.
Nevertheless, it’s to be hoped that Israel will pursue the initial momentum that has been forged in recent years, ensure that the surge in Japanese investments recorded in 2017-19 (about $3.5 billion, in 118 deals) will not be a one-time affair, and will know how to exploit Japan’s dynamic diplomatic interests for its own needs.
Prof. Rotem Kowner is a historian specializing in contemporary Japan, in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa.