He was the first of the 20-odd Japanese prime ministers to deserve the title in the past 35 years since Yasuhiro Nakasone held office.
Even though Abe had stepped down in 2020, he was still playing an important role in pushing to build Japan’s defenses, strengthen the U.S.–Japan alliance, support Taiwan, and take on the looming threat from communist China.
He will be sorely missed.
Abe had a strategic vision of Japan’s role in the world. He recognized that Japan could no longer sit quietly, writing the occasional check, while events unfolded around it.
Foremost, he saw that close ties with the United States are indispensable for Japan—and that forging a strong Japan–U.S. relationship required Tokyo to become a more useful ally. And by playing an active regional and global role—including militarily—Japan could raise its stature and influence.
To this end, Abe traveled the world. Being seen and heard made a difference and contrasted starkly with the low international profile of most previous Japanese prime ministers.
Abe also directed the Japan Self-Defense Forces to expand military-to-military engagements, exercises, and talks throughout the Asia–Pacific region and even in Europe. This was unthinkable just a few years earlier.
Moreover, following Abe’s success in relaxing defense hardware export rules, Japan provided used aircraft and ships to the Philippines and Vietnam and, in the act of strategic vision, tried to sell Japanese submarines to Australia. This would have upended the regional strategic order—in a good way—had Australia’s Turnbull administration not lost its nerve and canceled what was reportedly a “done” deal.
The Australians instead went with a French bidder, and a few years later, the deal was terminated as an embarrassing, expensive failure.
Although China predictably complains, Japan’s military outreach is even now well-received in the region, with Australia, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Pacific Island nations, and others welcoming Japanese security cooperation.
And were it not for Abe, there would be no “Quad,” the loose security alliance between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
It should be remembered that Abe wasn’t the first prime minister to start this move to a more active defense and assertive foreign policy. Still, he moved things much faster and farther than anyone since Prime Minister Nakasone in the mid-1980s.
The United States long wanted Japan to be a more active ally and to play a more substantial defense role—both in its own right and in league with the U.S. forces. Unfortunately, the U.S. government wasted a year after Abe’s election in 2012, keeping him at arm’s length for his views of history, comfort women, and reputation as a “rightist.”
However, the Americans finally got over this. They got what they wanted (and needed), as evidenced by the 2015 revision (and improvement) of U.S.–Japan defense guidelines and Abe’s successful passage of measures broadening what Japan can do under the doctrine of “collective self-defense.” There were no small feats.
As for resolving the Okinawa basing issues, Abe made an effort to look at Japan’s defense from a national perspective rather than the narrow viewpoint of Okinawan activists and outsider-incited opposition.
He nobly tried to finally push through the replacement for the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station after repeated promises by Tokyo to do so went unfulfilled.
He even bit his tongue and patiently tried building a relationship with South Korea.
Abe didn’t snap his fingers and get what he wanted. It was hard work. He always faced considerable domestic opposition. Abe couldn’t ignore public opinion and consequently endeavored to explain his policies, even if imperfectly but better than most, if not all, earlier prime ministers.
Besides challenges from opposition parties, Abe had plenty of enemies within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. There was even a sizable LDP bloc opposing Abe’s active defense policies, not to mention many politicians of all parties favoring a more accommodating stance toward China.
Abe also faced immense personal animus from many people—Japanese and foreign. In some respects, his recent slaying was the predictable outcome of this unseemly hatred from people who should have known better.
And, of course, Japan’s bureaucracy dragged its feet as often as not. Indeed, for all his success, Abe was unable to meaningfully increase defense spending—given the Ministry of Finance’s outsized influence—but he did reverse a decade of declining defense budgets and managed at least modest increases each year.
And it wasn’t just defense in which Abe did well. He kept the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive after the Americans declined to join—and thus maintained a “free world” version of a regional economic alliance—until the United States might come to its senses one day.
Abe was a veritable Otto von Bismarck compared with many of his predecessors, who seemed to view a Japanese prime minister’s primary purpose as recycling money from the central government to favored supporters and back again.
For them, foreign affairs and military matters were better left to risk-averse bureaucrats.
A separate word about the economy: Abe is still—even after his death—savaged by critics, especially foreign ones, for the perceived failure of “Abenomics.” Abe deserves a pass on this, not least since none of his predecessors over the past 25 years had any greater success reviving the economy.
Indeed, one might fairly argue that Abe’s biggest mistake was failing to listen closely to the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan—and then doing the opposite of what the bureaucrats recommended.
This writer has followed and written about Abe for a number of years. And I was wrong about one big thing. I thought that once Abe stepped down as prime minister, the momentum he created—particularly on defense and foreign policy—would lapse, and Japan would return to the custom of short-lived, ineffective prime ministers and a defense and foreign policy based on doing as little as possible.
It did not. Indeed, Abe’s successors are continuing on the course that he put Japan in. And Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has recently spoken of doubling the defense budget and “fundamentally strengthening” Japan’s defense. And the China threat (and others) are now almost common wisdom among the Japanese citizenry and much of the political class.
The world needs an assertive, active Japan—a country with individual liberty, consensual government, and the rule of law. And the world needs the proactive, engaged, militarily capable nation that Abe tried to create.
Japan is fortunate to have had him, and so are the Americans and other free nations.
Say what one will, Shinzo Abe left Japan better than he found it.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.