The Japanese Messiah is gone
The passing of Shinzo Abe has left a gaping hole in the public and political life of Japan.
The Japanese Messiah is gone
Rhymes in History

The Japanese Messiah is gone

A portrait of Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo,  September 2022 (Photo: AFP/Franck Robichon)
Tibor Pósa 19/02/2023 03:00

He died the way he lived. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (67), who left his post two years ago, was assassinated July 8 2022 at a campaign rally of his conservative party. Throughout his political career, he relentlessly pursued the idea of restoring the faith of the people of Japan in themselves as a nation. The passing of Shinzo Abe has left a gaping hole in the public and political life of Japan.

Although he declined any formal official governmental position after his illness, Shinzo Abe did not leave politics behind altogether. His disease – intestinal ulcer – which had bothered him since his early teenage years, was the reason he had to withdraw from frontline politics.

Even after retiring, he had significant influence over the nationalist-conservative Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was attending a campaign rally in the city of Nara in the central region of Japan when a retired army officer, aged 41, shot him twice in the back with a homemade handgun. Upon turning himself in, the man revealed his act was triggered by his contempt for Shinzo’s politics. Japan had not seen a similar act for decades. Japanese society has changed considerably since the violence‑laced turmoil of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

A Dynasty of Politicians in the Service of the Nation

His spiritual resolve made Shinzo Abe stand head and shoulders above his peers who have been Japanese Prime Ministers in recent decades. He was not the most charismatic – he could not hold a candle in this respect to Junichiro Koizumi, for example, who the crowds treated like a rock star during his tenure in the early 2000s. But Shinzo does not only hold the record as Japan’s longest‑serving Prime Minister (he won multiple elections and held the office for a combined nine years), he has also left an indelible mark on Japan in the reform measures his administrations took regarding the political and economical life of the country. His vision was to give the Japanese economy, which had been stagnating for decades, a jolt, giving the island nation faith to face the challenges of the future and be sure of a place for Japan among the world’s great nations.

Wherever could this progressive conviction of Shinzo’s have come from at a time when his nation, declining in population, was retreating inward, cocooning and depressively refusing to act in any way? He was born to a dynasty of politicians, and becoming one himself was his aim from his childhood. His grandfather and role model Nobusuke Kishi himself Prime Minister became prime minister in 1957. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan had just been founded two years earlier, and has since then had only one four-year period when it was not the governing party. An anti-communist and conservative politician Nobusuke Kishi had served in the Japanese army before 1945, yet he could sit down at the meeting table with the United States to discuss how to rekindle a good relationship between the two powers, bridging the gap between the occupier and the occupied. The United States was also motivated to normalise the relationship with Japan, as the country was witnessing a boom in the popularity of the Communist Party at the time.

Shinzo grew up in a cocoon of conservatism and nationalism. He would learn most from his grandfather. His father, always busy then‑Minister of Foreign Affairs Shintaro Abe, had little time for the young Shinzo. Abe and his grandfather developed a deep and rock-solid bond. Later Shinzo Abe would express profound admiration for the generation of his grandfather, saying they were the people that had rebuilt Japan. And by that they had given the nation the moral backbone they needed to stand up and start believing in themselves again after defeat in World War II and the subsequent American occupation.
A portrait of Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo,  September 2022 (Photo: AFP/Franck Robichon)

The Unfinished Economic Policy

The conservative party proved to be a terrific school of politics for the young Shinzo. His role would initially be marginal, but the talks with North Korea in 2002 gave him the opportunity to showcase his toughness as a negotiator. This opened for him a road to power within the LDD. Then in 2006, at the age of 52 he reached the summit: he was elected Prime Minister as the youngest person to assume the position after World War II. However, the next year his health forced him to resign. He then withdrew from politics for the following five years. 2011 would be especially harsh for Japan: no less than three separate crises blew up, each one a harder blow for the nation than the other: an earthquake, a tsunami and a major accident at a nuclear facility. The centre-left parties which had a short-term mandate to govern proved incapable of managing the extra tough situation, and the nation awaited the return of Shinzo Abe in suspense, as if he was some kind of Messiah. The 2012 lower house general elections saw a landslide win for his party with their promise to “Take Back Japan” as their campaign slogan.

The “Made in Japan” logo must convey the original message: quality, precision and constant reform. This was the essence of his economic programme, “Abenomics”. He also had a serious demographic crisis to take care of. Abe had the idea of luring women into the corporate workforce. The severity of the decrease in population in Japan is well shown by an international forecast putting the estimated population of Japan, 126 million today, at 90 million in 2060 and 60 million in 2100. Retirement and death bring a current decrease in the active population of Japan of 500 thousand a year. Similarly to Hungary, Japanese society rejects the idea of offsetting the trend by immigration, insisting on protecting their culture and the monolithic nature of their nation. For that reason, strict immigration policies were only marginally eased to give certain allowances to guest workers brought in from abroad.

Japan occupies third place in the global list of countries by national income – $ 5 trillion a year. However, Abenomics proved to be unable to buckle negative financial and economic trends in the short term. Economic growth is still rather sluggish at 0.85%. The national budget has to deal with overspending, while national debt has grown to exceed 250% of national income. And this is a lot, even if we consider that most of it is internal debt. On the other hand, Japan is still in the global elite when it comes to innovation.

To achieve economic balance and give the budget some play Abe was able to convince Japanese society to swallow the bitter pill of a rise in excise duty. He introduced reforms to the agricultural and employment sectors, and also made numerous free trade agreements throughout the world. What he ran out of time for was concluding all the changes and reforms he introduced, but he did get Japan out of its funk.

In 2013 Japan announced their candidacy for hosting the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. They did win, but the CoVid-19 epidemic forced them to postpone the Games to 2021. Abe’s vision for the Olympic Games was to showcase to the world 21st century Japan, as the crowning achievement of his political career, but his illness would not allow him to. In August 2020 he resigned as Prime Minister of Japan. As an expression of his core political values Abe intended the Olympic Games, an event of global significance, to boost the national pride of the Japanese by making them the perfect hosts of an event of this magnitude. However, the fact that the epidemic forced the Games to be held practically behind closed doors, meant that this could not be fully achieved.

Back to True Japanese Values

Another thing Shinzo Abe could not get done was a complete reform of the Japanese constitution, which was basically written by America, but significant changes were made. Paragraph 9 of the constitution of Japan forbids the establishment of an offensive Japanese army, and only allows the maintenance of a defence force capable of protecting the country. Deployment of such forces abroad is likewise forbidden. However, Shinzo Abe managed to secure a mandate for sending troops aboard on peacekeeping missions in various conflict zones around the world. This does not make the Japanese armed forces an army, but the self-defence capabilities of Japan employ world-class cutting-edge technology and weaponry. Japan must leave behind the post-war conditions and establish bona fide armed forces – Abe’s creed ran. Currently the conservatives possess the political power to change the constitution to reflect this philosophy. However, such an act would certainly draw unfavourable reactions, especially in neighbouring countries. As Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe first paid his respects in the Yasukuni Shrine erected in commemoration of the soldiers who died in service of Japan in World War II, in 2013. This act was considered by China and South Korea as an attempt to revive the spirit of militarism in Japan.

The former Japanese Prime Minister nurtured good relations with both the United States and Russia. He was on first‑name terms with both Trump and Putin, calling them Donald and Vladimir, to demonstrate how close they were. True, his attempt to settle the problematic status of the Kuril Islands by reaching a framework agreement with Russia failed, and this kept alive the state of war between the two countries technically still existent since World War II. Still, the main concern of Japan has been China, a neighbour growing larger and larger in significance in plain sight. Japan is in a rather delicate situation here: a rock-solid ally of the United States on the one hand, but the largest international investor in China on the other. Abe strived to be the balancing factor in the tug‑of‑war between the two superpowers. He also established positive relations with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What is the legacy of the late Prime Minister? Shinzo Abe’s legacy is based on his creed that Japan needs new successes to help the nation regain its national pride. The Republic of Hungary has the fondest memories of the late Prime Minister and regards his passing as the loss of a great friend.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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