Shinzo Abe’s Politics in Japan: Characteristics and Implications

Yukio Sakurai*
yukio1887@gmail.com


Introduction

On 8 July 2022, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (1954-2022) was shot-killed by a gunman while giving a speech in support of a candidate for the House of Councilors election in Nara prefecture, Japan. This incident was an exceptional event in terms of security in Japan and gave a big shock to the Japanese people. An article appeared that commented on this event on the same ground as the assassination cases in the United States, such as John F. Kennedy (JFK) case in 1963 (Lane, 2022). Certainly, there are many puzzling points in this assassination case but limited information on the event can be available at this stage and nobody identifies the whole story.

In any case, Abe, who served as the longest-serving prime minister in postwar Japan, has passed away. No Japanese prime minister is as divided in opinion as Abe. Because Abe’s politics had diverse aspects that seemed to be positive and negative, and thus Japan’s national opinion has been divided. Abe’s negative aspect can be assumed to include political methods that had not been seen in Japan’s politics (Yakushiji, 2020). This commentary summarizes some of Abe’s political characteristics based on domestic and foreign materials on Abe and discusses the implications of his sudden death in Japan.

Characteristics of Abe’s politics

  • Hereditary politics and family business

In Japan, politicians are often a group of people who ascended office through hereditary succession, but some are ex-bureaucrats, representatives of trade unions or some industry groups, celebrities (in entertainment, sports, etc.), and ex. local parliament members (Scartozzi, 2017). Hereditary succession is a system that places the highest priority on blood ties and does not necessarily emphasize the abilities of politicians. In hereditary succession, politicians can inherit the support groups and supporters of the single-seat constituency system. In general, this method brings the interest of maintaining vested interests for both supporters and politicians, but it creates a weak point that prevents new entrants from politicians and prevents progress in reform.

Abe was a typical hereditary succession politician. The father of Abe was former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe (1924-1991), his grandfather was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), and his great-uncle was former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (1901-1975). It is said that Abe most respected his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was a pro-U.S. politician in postwar Japan (Johnson 2000), through Abe’s mother and Kishi’s daughter Yoko’s orientation (Abe 2022). Abe’s profession was part of a family business, but he was capable. Abe was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993. After serving as deputy chief cabinet secretary, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and chief cabinet secretary, Abe served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and from 2012 to 2020 for eight years and eight months (a total of 3,188 days).

  • Power of Control

Abe had institutional power of control over the parties concerned in his politics.

Politicians

Abe was so strong that he won six national elections as president of the LDP. Through his election victory, he secured a firm position in the LDP. Abe was called “Abe the strongest.” Abe’s politics were said to be characterized by his friends’ cabinet. Because Abe appointed his friendly politicians to be ministers in his cabinet. In contrast, Abe tended to treat politicians he didn’t like as cold as possible. Abe tended to shy away from people who disagreed with him and avoid discussions. Consequently, LDP politicians have come to agree with Abe’s views and refrain from openly opposing him. This tendency to divide has taken the same attitude not only toward politicians but also to the people. This sounds like Donald Trump’s political approach. In fact, Abe had a close personal relationship with Trump.

State institutions

A distinctive feature of Abe’s politics was the appointment of his supporters to heads of major state institutions, some of which required the consent of the National Diet. The state institutions are the Bank of Japan, Cabinet Legislation Bureau, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Japan Broadcasting Corporation, etc. (Kamikawa, 2018). The arbitrariness of his personnel appointment was often criticized by the opposition and mass media, but he took advantage of the power of the coalition-ruling parties, which held a majority in the National Diet, to force his way. Consequently, major state institutions might have lost neutrality.

National bureaucrats

Abe was powerful to control national bureaucrats. This is due to a change in the personnel system for national bureaucrats. The cabinet of Japan has collectively administered executive personnel affairs of each ministry and agency through the Cabinet Personnel Management Agency since the 2014 Abe administration. With this system, each ministry or public agency is under the control of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister can behave like a President (Toda, 2015; Kamikawa, 2018). Consequently, national bureaucrats began to read between the lines, interpreting laws in favour of Abe, and even falsifying official documents. Some issues were argued in the National Diet. Abe’s politics was led by Prime Minister’s Office, namely Abe and his close staff, and the LDP must follow his decisions. Therefore, Komeito, one of the leading coalition parties, has the power to influence Abe outside the LDP.

Mass media and public opinion

The mass media and public opinion were divided between those who supported Abe and those who criticized him. Abe’s supporters are conservative, but some of them have nationalistic ideas and are called “net-uyoku” (nationalist supporters in SNS). Abe’s cabinet office controlled public opinion by using mass media and journalists who supported Abe.

  • Monetary, fiscal, and economic policy

Abe promoted so-called “Abenomics,” which comprise the three arrows of “bold monetary policy,” “flexible fiscal policy,” and “economic growth strategy to stimulate private investment.”  In Abe’s second office, the Bank of Japan changed its policy to quantitative easing with a 2% inflation target as a countermeasure against deflation, and this policy is still being maintained even in the current era of inflation. Apart from the real economy, stock prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange remained high, giving the impression that the Japanese economy was doing well. Abe’s economic policy relied on neo-liberalism although he himself had a conservative moral and ethical mind.

The analysis based on the December 2014 national poll was as follows. (a) The individual evaluation that had the strongest correlation with the overall evaluation was the economic stimulus evaluation. (b) Gender was a social attribute variable for an overall evaluation, and males were a factor that enhances evaluation. (c) The recognition of the economic situation of the country stipulated the evaluation of the Abe administration rather than the recognition of the economic situation itself (Ida, 2020). Experts however criticized Abenomics for not having reached the goals after years.

  • Diplomacy and national security

Diplomacy and national security are two essential agendas for Abe’s politics. Shinichi Kitaoka (2021) notes “three particularly significant achievements by the Abe administration in the fields of diplomacy and [national] security, which are: (i) the 2015 Legislation for Peace and Security (MOFA, 2015); (ii) Prime Minister Abe’s statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 2015); and (iii) his 2016 initiative for pursuing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (“FOIP,” MOFA, 2022).” Abe, known by world political leaders, could make dialogues with foreign leaders through his words. This was rare for Japanese politicians to do so. Abe respected universal values such as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights and frequently expressed these values in his speech. As for national security, Abe had a strong wish to amend the constitution for Japan to have military forces for effective defence, keeping strong ties with the U.S. For this purpose, he paved the way to take necessary steps such that Article 9 of the constitution has been reinterpreted to allow for collective self-defence but had not reached the goal.

Political Implications of Abe’s Sudden Death

As reviewed above, Abe was a powerful politician who tactfully took leadership in his prime minister’s office and was influential with the LDP politicians and the people even after he left office. What political implications of Abe’s sudden death can be expected?

First, Abe has no children, and Abe’s spouse Akie announced no possibility to run for the national election at Yamaguchi prefecture. Abe’s relative may succeed in the lawmaker position under Abe’s mother Yoko’s initiative.

Second, the LDP comprises several groups and Abe’s group was conservative and the biggest in scale. It is unclear who will take over Abe’s position in this group. Abe’s followers are suffering from pressures caused by political issues. Namely, one is the issue related to the former Unification Church that supported many LDP politicians in elections while making anti-social activities, and the other is the bribery suspect case related to the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics 2020. Both issues were discovered soon after Abe was gone.

Third, the vacuum of the presence of Abe may make Japan’s political powerless powerful and change the balance of politics in Japan (Sneider, 2022). As social environments surrounding Japan become severer in the interior, diplomacy, and national security, it is apparent that Japan needs a capable political leader. Abe was sometimes criticized for his political methods, but he was capable to behave as the national leader, involving his team and advisors, and making dialogues with foreign leaders to determine the way. Therefore, it can be said that Japan will suffer from the vacuum of political leadership for the time being.

Conclusion

This commentary reviewed former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s characteristics of politics based on materials on Abe and discussed the implications of his sudden death in Japan. Abe was a typical hereditary succession politician but was capable of tactfully taking leadership in his prime minister’s office in the interior, diplomacy, and national security. Particularly, Abe’s three achievements in diplomacy and national security were worth remembering. However, the opposition, part of the mass media and the people criticized him because he did not respect constitutionalism that much and behaved like a President. Two political issues are ongoing after he was gone, which will make the voice of criticism bigger to the LDP. The political implication of Abe’s sudden death is political turbulence caused by uncertainty as to “who will take over Abe’s political position.” If this is not clarified, Japan will suffer from instability in politics. If a gunman (and his possible supporters, just in case) should have attempted such political turbulence, this can be assumed to be a terrorist attack to damage Japanese politics.


References

Abe, Y (2022) Destiny: Talking about Shinzo Abe, Shintaro Abe and Nobusuke Kishi. [in Japanese] (Tokyo: Bungeishunju Ltd., 2022).

Johnson, C, NA Schlei, & M Schaller (2000) The CIA and Japanese politics.  Asian Perspective 24(4):79–103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42705308.

Kamikawa, R (2018) An institutional analysis of “Abe strong, many weak.” (1) & (2) Osaka Law Review 67(5):17-45. & 67(6):63-92. [in Japanese] info: Doi/10.18910/87043 & info: Doi/10.18910/87058.

Kitaoka, S (2021) The legacy of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo: diplomacy and security. Asia-Pacific Review 28(1):7-21. DOI: 10.1080/13439006.2021.1921355.

Lane, C (2022) The Abe assassination reminds us that individuals make history. (The Washington Post, 13 July 2022) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/13/shinzo-abe-assassination-shapes-history/.

Ida, M (2020) Analysis of the second Abe administration evaluation. The Review of Economics & Political science 88(5-6):1-20. [in Japanese] http://m-repo.lib.meiji.ac.jp/dspace/handle/10291/21042.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) of Japan (2015) Japan’s legislation for peace and security. https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1we_000084.html.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) of Japan (2022) Free and open Indo-Pacific. https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/page25e_000278.html.

Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet (2015) Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 14 August 2015. https://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html.

Scartozzi, CK (2017) Hereditary politics in Japan: a family business. (The Diplomat, 9 February 2017) https://thediplomat.com/2017/02/hereditary-politics-in-japan-a-family-business/.

Sneider, D (2022) Cause to fear what comes after Abe’s death. (Asia Times, 11 July 2022) https://asiatimes.com/2022/07/cause-to-fear-what-comes-after-abes-death/.

Toda, K (2015) A study of cabinet personnel management agency. The Economic Review of Japan University of Economics 45(1):53–68. [in Japanese] https://jue.repo.nii.ac.jp/?action=pages_view_main&active_action=repository_view_main_item_detail&item_id=1503&item_no=1&page_id=4&block_id=80.

Yakushiji, K (2020) Abe’s “anything goes” administration destroys democracy: an independent administrative agency bowing down to “Abe the strongest.” [in Japanese] https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/333304.


* Yukio Sakurai, a retired businessperson, is an independent researcher with PhD in law (Yokohama National University, Japan) who researches adult support and protection legislation, including adult guardianship, supported decision-making and elder abuse safeguards, in addition to global governance studies as his lifework.


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