Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister of Japan, who sought to revive the country as an economic and military power to confront China’s rising influence, died yesterday after being shot by a gunman. He was 67.
The killing brought an outpouring of tributes around the world for Abe, the scion of a prominent political family whose stamp on Japan’s politics and international affairs spanned nearly a generation. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has led Japan for all but four years since the mid-1950s.
Abe brought a measure of stability as prime minister from 2012 to 2020 after years of revolving-door leadership that complicated Japan’s critical alliances, including its trade and defence ties with Washington. Yet challenges – some self-imposed – gave the eight-year Abe era a sense of rough edges and unfulfilled aspirations.
Abe took power as the country was still reeling from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear facility and left a radioactive no-go zone in parts of the country.
He stepped down in September 2020 because of medical issues – chronic ulcerative colitis – amid the pandemic that upended his economic visions and delayed until 2021 one of his crown jewels, bringing the Olympics back to Tokyo. At the closing ceremonies of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, Abe dressed as Super Mario of Nintendo fame to celebrate the preparations for the Tokyo Games.
Abe did not attend the lockdown-style opening of those summer Olympics, allowing his successor, Yoshihide Suga, to have centre stage.
Abe also struggled with many of his signature initiatives. At the top were efforts to bring some of the Silicon Valley ethos of innovation and risk-taking into Japan’s tradition-laden economy, still one of the world’s largest but stuck in a slow-growth slumber for decades. At the same time, he pushed hard to expand Japan’s military capabilities in the face of a rising China and a nuclear-armed North Korea, planning for new bases on islands and boosting defence spending.
But he could not find the political or public backing to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution written during the US occupation after World War II.
Abe asked for “forgiveness” that he was leaving office without managing to make the constitutional changes or reaching other goals, including bringing back the remaining Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea and settling territorial disputes with Russia over an island chain, known in Russia as the Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories.
“It is really with a very heavy heart that I am resigning without being able to attain those things,” said Abe, who also was prime minister for a year in 2006-2007. He left then, too, citing medical troubles.
Abe was born in Tokyo on September 21, 1954, to a family deeply involved in Japan’s postwar politics and carrying the burden of connections to the former imperial rule and its militaristic expansionism.
His great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, held the previous record as longest-serving prime minister (from 1964 to 1972) and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work on nuclear non-proliferation. Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, held high-profile political and government posts for more than three decades, including trade minister and foreign minister in the 1980s.
Abe was perhaps most strongly influenced by his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as a cabinet minister during World War II and prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and also sought to revise Japan’s constitution to allow a more assertive military and diplomatic role.
He was raised as Japan was on its stunning economic trajectory after World War II, on its way to the heady Japan Inc. powerhouse years of the 1980s. At an early age, Abe appeared to be being groomed to take his place in the centre-right LDP. He studied political science at Seikei University in Tokyo, graduating in 1977, and then spent a year at the University of Southern California to study political science and get a first-hand look at US culture and sensibilities.
He returned to Japan for a position at Kobe Steel. In 1987, he married Akie Matsuzaki, the daughter of a former president of the confectionery giant Morinaga. The couple never had children.
In 1982. Abe served as executive assistant to his father, who was then foreign minister. He was first elected as a member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, in 1993 for the south-western prefecture of Yamaguchi. He smashed open a barrel of sake to celebrate.
He steadily rose through the LDP ranks to become its leader in 2005, putting him in line as a potential prime minister. That came in September 2006.
It gave Abe a first chance to test his economic agenda, which became known as the “three arrows”: easier borrowing, increased government spending and other economic changes aimed at revamping the economy.
But upheavals in his government – including allegations of doling out illegal farm subsidies – soon stole the limelight. The subsidies probe apparently led to the suicide of Abe’s agriculture minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka. Abe stepped down after just one year, citing medical issues and sending his party into disarray. It took five years for him to get back to the prime minister’s office.
Abe’s style was workmanlike – with occasional flashes of wry humour – and his inner circle was built mostly around technocrats and loyalists. In a relative sense, Abe’s leadership was designed for low drama to avoid the missteps of his first time as leader.
Still, there were troubles. South Korea accused Abe of not fully acknowledging that Japanese occupation troops forced women into sexual slavery, despite a 2015 document that offered Japanese compensation. In 2013, Abe faced sharp backlash after visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours, among others, World War II war criminals.
In addition to his wife, survivors include his mother, Yoko Abe; and two brothers, Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s defence minister, and Hironobu Abe, a retired executive of Mitsubishi Corporation Packaging.
Abe took special interest in building rapport with the Oval Office, often using his love of golf as a calling card.
He was the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016. In 2013, Abe presented then president Barack Obama with a Japanese-made putter and recounted how his grandfather as prime minister played golf with ex-president Dwight D Eisenhower after their first meeting in Washington in 1957.
Joe Biden, then the vice-president, asked Abe whether Eisenhower or his grandfather had the better score.
“It’s a state secret,” Abe replied. (© 2022, The Washington Post)
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