HIGH MARKS FOR SHINZO ABE
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, was the right man to lead Japan through a changing and dangerous strategic situation. Under him, Japan rapidly caught up with Indo-Pacific reality. We were lucky to have had him. The magnificent job he did for Japan—and the world—will forever be recorded in history.
Japan will hold a state funeral on September 27 for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated by a gunman on July 8 on the campaign trail in Nara, western Japan. The planned funeral gets mixed reactions from the public. A recent opinion survey by the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun and the Fuji News Network found 50.1% of the respondents were for the plan, 46.9% against it.
The two news outlets are affiliated with the Fuji-Sankei Communications Group—not by leftwing dailies like The Asahi and The Mainichi, which have continued to attack Abe.
The results, however, were not surprising. Public reaction was similar in 1960 when Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather, resigned in 1960 after implementing a highly unpopular revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty originally signed in the San Francisco Presidio in 1951. Violent demonstrations, playing off Japanese fears of militarism, lasted for months outside parliament.
Many Japanese political and diplomatic experts and journalists give the highest marks of any post-war prime minister to Kishi. They will point out that Kishi put his life on the line to enact the US-Japan Security Treaty, which he knew Japan desperately needed to strengthen its relations with the US and strengthen its own security.
Many Japanese, alas, may have forgotten that the treaty’s revision elevated Japan’s position to equality with the US, up from a virtual American colony. Most, however, have over the years accepted the treaty, recognizing it as the major premise for Japan’s security.
But the high praise Kishi is getting today was hardly imaginable while he was in office 1957-60. The Japanese belatedly began to recognize Kishi’s contribution to our nation’ peace and security several decades after the Treaty had been revised. Like his grandfather, Abe has raised Japan’s international status as a democracy and bolstered its national power. As time passes by and the people gradually appreciate what Abe has done for Japan, I have no doubt that he will be respected as an enlightened political leader matching his grandfather.
This will likely happen much sooner than previously, because Abe emphasized the need for Japan to strategically and structurally alter course expeditiously to survive a rapidly changing international situation. A majority of Japanese favor increasing Japan’s defense outlay to 2% of its GDP and open-ended discussions on nuclear-sharing with the US. Given these shifts, Japan would be wise to follow the path Abe has set for national security. Those denouncing Abe’s policies are in the minority.
“Japan as a Sovereign Nation”
World leaders and those who have studied Japan have had a high opinion of Abe’s aims and policies. American Edward Luttwak, a renowned strategist and scholar on international politics, lauded Abe’s accomplishments in the special September 2022 issue of the popular monthly magazine Hanada.
Luttwak described Abe as the first postwar Japanese prime minister who actively formulated “the policies of Japan for its government.” Luttwak observed that before Abe, US-Japan communication was limited and largely one-way. To be sure, the Japanese Foreign Ministry occasionally dialogued with the US State Department; the Land Self-Defense Force with the US Army; the Maritime Self-Defense Force with the US Navy; and the Cabinet Information Research Office with the CIA. But the Japanese entities failed to interact with each other, each resigned to simply following instructions from its US counterpart, according to Luttwak. Under the Abe administration, however, the Japanese bodies began functioning for the first time as an “organic body,” actively supporting one another.
Before the Abe administration, these entities had worked like bodies without brains, Luttwak points out, with each Japanese government agency blindly following instructions from Washington. With Abe in power, Tokyo finally started to function as a real government, adopting for the first time measures for “the authentic government of Japan.”
Abe at the helm (2006-07, 2012-2020) showed what Luttwak meant by Abe formulating strategic policies. Abe is credited with “rebuilding the badly impaired US-Japan relations” during his second administration (2012-14). Under the pro-Chinese policies of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Tokyo slighted Japan’s alliance with the US and sought to strengthen ties with Beijing, eagerly working with China to implement the “East Asia Community” (EAC)—the Chinese-proposed initiative which was later aborted.
The EAC was a Chinese effort to band closely with Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to exclude the US from the region. China thought it would be able to drag Japan into its sphere of influence with ease—so long as the US stayed clear of the Asia-Pacific. China aspired to lead Asia by controlling the AEC, which would include Japan and South Korea, respectively the second and the 12th economic powers of the world. Hatoyama was so enthused by this Chinese initiative he announced a bright future for Japan and the rest of Asia in the EAC during a UN session in September 2009. US-Japan alliance, of course, soured during the three years in which the Democrats were in power, making the Obama Administration deeply skeptical about the intentions of America’s vital Pacific ally.
When Abe’s Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) reclaimed political power In December 2012, Abe, now heading his second administration, hurried to mend fences with Washington. He keenly recognized the importance of Japan bolstering its alliance with the US as part of the global balance of power. Three months later, in March 2013, Abe announced Japan’s decision to join the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement which would constitute a core deterrence against China on the part of free nations sharing the Pacific. Although President Donald Trump immediately withdrew the US from the TPP in February 2017, Abe tenaciously got the 11 remaining nations to agree on the trade pact in 2017. Abe was fully convinced of the TPP’s strategic importance, as indeed some American thinkers are.
“US-Japan Alliance Would Not Be Enough”
Nothing is strategically more important to Japan than its alliance with the US. Abe is credited with having enacted the 2015 Peace and Security Legislation enabling the Japanese self-defense forces to fight with US armed forces by exercising its right of collective self-defense. The law was a major achievement, as it significantly bolstered the US-Japan alliance. But Abe felt the alliance with the US alone would not fully guarantee Japan’s security in light of the aggressive moves by China’s People’s Liberation Army. So he further strove to cement security relations with those nations that share common values such as freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. This has further solidified Japan’s security, which is fundamentally safeguarded by the US-Japan alliance.
Behind Abe’s action is the traditional Japanese national character. Caring for fellow citizens is among the values Japan has nurtured over its long history. This culture also has made possible a generally equitable society in which most pursue their aims and cooperate voluntarily.
Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative (FOIP) reflected this in international relations. The ties between the four “Quad” nations—Australia, India, Japan, and the US—are now being strengthened. Japan and Australia now enjoy a relationship almost as if they are already full-fledged allies. Britain and France have also accepted FOIP, pledging commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Japan has already held “2+2” foreign and defense ministerial conferences with Britain and France. Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit NATO headquarters in 2007 to discuss implementing common values.
While treasuring Japan’s alliance with the US as the pillar of its security strategy, Abe has also expressed his readiness to contribute to a solid international order from an independent standpoint of the Japanese government. He has thus demonstrated that Japan is a responsible key player in the international community.
Abe’s goals have not fully been achieved, as he had to leave this world before revising the constitution—his primary objective. He must be feeling deeply chagrined that more was not done. How much more would he be able to contribute to Japan—and to the world—had he survived his assassination on July 8? The people of Japan are starting to give him the highest marks for the magnificent job he has done for Japan and for the world which will forever be recorded in history.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,010 in the July 28, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)