Shinzo Abe was born in 1954 in Tokyo. He grew surrounded by political affairs as he was the son of a former member of the House of Representatives and minister of foreign affairs (1982-1986) and grandson of a wartime cabinet minister who became prime-minister of Japan (1957-1961).
In the early 1980s, Mr. Abe joined the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is currently a member of the Mori Faction of the latter, one of the most influential and conservative party’s factions.
Mr. Abe was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993 and integrated the government for the first time in 2005 as Chief Cabinet Secretary. He is also a member of the Nippon Kaigi (“The Japan Conference”) organization, Japan’s largest ultra-conservative and far-right organization whose foundational aims are revising the Japanese constitution, promoting patriotic education, and incentivizing official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a temple that pays tribute to Japanese citizens who lost their lives fighting for Japan in major wars, including WWII.
Mr. Abe also led the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform that brought highly controversial changes to history textbooks, namely by trying to devalue the atrocities committed by Japanese forces in the Korean peninsula and China during the 20th century. Mr. Abe’s stances on Japan’s history damaged multiple times his popularity near its electorate.
Mr. Abe’s first term as prime-minister occurred between 2006 and 2007. He replaced the existing prime-minister Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the LDP and became, at the age of 52, the youngest post-war Japanese prime-minister. In his first term as prime-minister, his popularity reached rock bottom not only for having to deal with corruption scandals involving two of his government ministers but also for opposing the possibility of a Japanese female monarch ascension to the throne. Following the high rates of disapproval, Abe resigned in 2007 as head of government and president of LDP alleging health issues.
However, in 2012, he reappeared as a candidate for LDP’s presidency and was re-elected. For his run, he used the motto “Take back Japan” to show his approach to the economic, demographic, and sovereignty constraints.
During the following 8 years as head of government, Mr. Abe was able to produce dramatic changes at all levels in Japan. He amended almost all the 103 articles of the heavily American written Japanese constitution, weakening the protection of individual rights, reinforcing the importance of public order, and conceding great power to the army. In 2013, he announced a five-year plan of military expansion described as “proactive pacifism”. A year later, Abe took the initiative to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to grant the right for “collective self-defense”, which allows the Japanese Armed Forces to aid allies under attack, whereas the previous interpretation of the constitution only allowed the use of force for self-defense purposes.
In 2014, to reverse Japan’s decreasing tendency of birth rate, Mr. Abe unsuccessfully allocated millions of dollars to the “marriage support program” that helped single individuals find potential mates.
By the end of 2014, the government was able to pass a bill in the House of Representatives that established which information constituted a state secret and increased penalties for those who leak such information. The approval of such law turned out to be highly controversial, making the Cabinet Office’s approval rating fall below 50% for the first time.
In 2018, his public image suffered another hit after he held a drinking party with LDP lawmakers while disastrous floods were affecting western Japan. Also in 2019, controversy grew around the cherry-blossom-viewing party, an official government event, given accusations of growing extravagance. When confronted by the opposition about the party’s list of attendees, the Cabinet Office shredded the documents.
This year, following the high disapproval rates on the government’s management towards the Coronavirus crisis, Mr. Abe announced his resignation as prime-minister and president of LDP, alleging, again, health issues.
Concerning foreign policy, Mr. Abe followed a “proactive search for peace” approach. With the American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan took a leadership position to save the agreement, strengthening Japan’s alliance with Donald Trump. Diverging from the protectionist policies that were common in the Japanese economy, Mr. Abe created an 11-nations’ free-trade zone.
Shinzo Abe also made an effort to expand Japan’s relationship with China, holding a historic phone call with Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, in 2018. The reinforcement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, also settled financial and developed agreements with China.
Strategic alliances with rising powers such as Australia and India were also celebrated by Abe, specifically in military collaboration.
Some critics suggest that Abe failed by deteriorating relations with the Japanese neighbors, South Korea – a relationship that experienced its peak in 2012, just before his mandate. Beside supporting right-wing nationalists who defended Japan’s colonial legacy in the peninsula, in October 2018, Abe declared a trade war with South Korea when the Japanese companies that used slave labor from Korea, during World War II, were sentenced to indemnify the harmed. This led the Japanese-South Korean relationship to reach rock bottom.
In 1992, the Japanese economy suffered the burst of an economic bubble, which led the country into the Lost Decade – ten years of economic stagnation. The Japanese government attempted to revive the economy with extensive public works programs, which failed to stimulate growth and greatly increased public debt. In the early 2000s, the Bank of Japan started using quantitative easing to spur economic growth, with success, but these policies failed to generate healthy levels of inflation.
Therefore, when Shinzo Abe entered office in 2012, he faced a deflation problem that threatened to stagnate the economy again and high levels of public debt. Mr. Abe thus developed an economic policy strategy that became known as Abenomics, consisting of “three arrows” (a reference to an old Japanese story where three arrows separately could be broken, but together were strong).
The first arrow consisted of monetary policy, aimed at reaching 2% inflation. The plan was to intensify the Bank of Japan’s quantitative easing program to increase the money supply and thus spur inflation.
The second arrow consisted of fiscal policy, namely several stimulus packages implemented over the years. These were mostly composed of public works and various forms of incentives for private investment. Several of Mr. Abe’s budgets have also included increases in military spending and cuts on foreign aid, according to his economic as well as foreign policy objectives.
The third arrow was broadly defined as a strategy for economic growth. In 2013, Abe announced the first measures in the third arrow, which consisted of cuts in economic regulation, particularly around the country’s largest cities. These measures disappointed analysts and the stock market, who were hoping for structural reforms, namely in the labor market and business law. In 2014, Abe announced more comprehensive reforms, including corporate governance reform, more openness to immigration, liberalization of the health sector, and a cut in corporate taxes to under 30%.
Abenomics have achieved moderate success. Since Mr. Abe entered office, Japan has seen modest GDP growth – between 0,5% and 2,5% per year. But the 2% yearly inflation target was only achieved in 2014, averaging around 0,5% over Mr. Abe’s term. Also, the Japanese public debt remained very high – 237,6% of GDP, in 2017.
Yoshihide Suga was chosen on September 14th as the new prime-minister, and now faces the economic and demographic challenges Abe’s administration failed to tackle. At present, Japan’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world with the country’s population shrinking by 400.000 people per year, which threatens the sustainability of future pensions and public health care systems. The Fitch Ratings have also predicted the Japanese public debt will surpass 240% of GDP by 2021, due to the current pandemics.
Mr. Shinzo Abe leaves behind an important legacy, but certainly not an easy one.
Sources: BBC, CNN, Financial Times, Foreign Policy, NewStatesman, New York Times, The Economist