Underrated: Shinzo Abe

The Japanese Prime Minister’s bold reforms are now paying off

Underrated
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Shinzo Abe is Japan’s Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate, that is). Like Nixon, written off after his loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 US presidential election, he was a failed politician who returned stronger than before. Also like Nixon, he has shaken his country out of its apathy and proved to be the most strategic thinker of his generation. He has given Japan its first clear economic and foreign policy since perhaps the 1980s, in the process becoming its most important leader in decades.

Abe (pronounced “Ah-bay”) is the grandson of a 1950s-era prime minister who was charged with war crimes after the Second World War. He has been criticised throughout his career for being a dangerous nationalist, one who does not believe that Japan did anything wrong during the war, and who seeks to overturn the post-war constitution which for seven decades has kept Japan a pacifist nation. Some of Abe’s statements have given credence to these criticisms, and actions like his visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are commemorated, are seen as direct insults to the sensitivities of Japan’s wartime victims in Asia.

When Abe returned to power in December 2012, Japan had suffered through a string of one-year premierships dating back, ironically, to Abe’s own resignation in 2007. The country was adrift, politically paralysed, and still recovering from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which produced the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The cynicism of the Japanese electorate resulted in huge swings between the country’s two main political parties.

Abe won the election in 2012 in large part because of his disciplined focus on the economy. Ever since the Japanese bubble burst in 1990, the country had become the great lost hope, enduring nearly a quarter of a century of economic stagnation and recession, even though it remained the world’s third-largest economy.

Abe made a splash with the first comprehensive economic reform plan in memory. Soon dubbed “Abenomics”, the plan famously comprised the so-called “three arrows”: fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reform. After fits and starts, the plan has been implemented, and even though there remain calls for bolder and more wide-ranging structural reform, Abe has pushed through a set of initiatives that should begin to reshape the economy over the next decade. Despite doubts about the ultimate impact of the reforms, and particular worries about the Bank of Japan recently adopting negative interest rates, both domestic and foreign business leaders are optimistic about the economy’s future.

In part due to its long economic slump, Japan has lost global and regional influence. The country that many in the 1980s assumed would become the leader of Asia, if not the world, instead found itself eclipsed by both a resurgent America and a rising China. Abe has reversed this prolonged Japanese irrelevance in global issues. He has consistently maintained that Japan should play a larger role on the world stage, commensurate with its economic strength.

The core of Abe’s foreign policy is to create a web of partnerships around Asia, in order to support the region’s liberal order, including the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade. He has forged close ties with both India and Australia, while deepening defence cooperation with south-east Asian nations. Just as importantly, he took the bold move of formally apologising to South Korea for the wartime “comfort women”, thereby trying to close a dark chapter in Asian history.

In order to make Japan a credible partner abroad, he has made controversial moves at home, including overturning the long-standing bans on engaging in collective self-defence and on exporting arms. He also has increased Japan’s defence spending after a decade of decline. Far from pursuing a maverick path, Abe concluded an agreement with Washington to expand the scope of the US-Japan Alliance. In addition, he has made a series of high-profile speeches, including before the US Congress, apologising for Japan’s wartime actions and committing Japan to supporting peace and stability.

Perhaps most importantly, Abe has restored a sense of both domestic political stability and purpose to Japanese policy. Despite still being labelled a dangerous nationalist, Abe remains a democrat elected by his fellow citizens. He has also shown himself a shrewd realist willing to work with partners old and new. He remains the country’s most popular politician by far, and his party has won two subsequent elections since he returned to power. After years of drift, Japanese from different walks of society tell visitors that they are beginning to become more optimistic about the future.

While his ambitious plans, both economic and foreign, may ultimately prove to be less than the sum of their parts, Shinzo Abe has confounded his critics to become Japan’s most consequential leader in recent memory.