Shinzo Abe, 1954-2022: The Legacy of Japan’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister

The death of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shocked the world. in Nara, western Japan.

As Japan mourns the death of the country’s longest serving prime minister, this is the legacy he left behind.

Sunrise

Abe was 52 when he first became prime minister in 2006, the youngest person to hold the post in the post-war era.

Shinzo Abe standing in a suit surrounded by cheering people

Shinzo Abe was welcomed by the announcement of his election victory on September 20, 2006 in Tokyo, Japan. Source: Getty / Koichi Kamoshida

He was seen as a symbol of change and youth, but also had the pedigree of a third-generation politician raised from birth by an elite conservative family.

Mr. Abe’s first term was a tumultuous one, plagued by scandals and controversy, and ended with a sudden resignation.

After initially suggesting that he was retiring for political reasons, he admitted that he was suffering from an illness later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.

They called it “Abenomics”.

His debilitating bowel condition required months of treatment but was eventually overcome with new drugs, Mr Abe said.
He ran again and the Japanese Prime Minister’s revolving door brought him back to office in 2012.

This ended in a tumultuous period, with prime ministers changing sometimes at the rate of one per year.

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With Japan still reeling from the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the opposition government briefly under fire for bungling and incompetence, Abe has offered a seemingly reliable pair of hands.

And he had a plan: Abenomics.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks on the podium in front of the Japanese flag

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to guests at the New York Stock Exchange in 2013 on “Abenomics” and Japan’s economic recovery. Source: Getty / John Moore

His plan to revive Japan’s economy—the world’s third largest but stagnant for more than two decades—included huge public spending, massive monetary easing, and the removal of red tape.

Mr. Abe has also sought to boost the country’s birth rate by making jobs more parent-friendly, especially mothers.
He pushed through a controversial consumption tax hike to help fund kindergartens and fill gaps in Japan’s overburdened welfare system.
Despite some progress on reforms, the economy’s larger structural problems remain.
Deflation proved relentless and the economy was in recession even before COVID-19 hit in 2020.

Mr. Abe’s star has faded even further during the pandemic, and his approach has been criticized as confusing and slow-paced, causing his approval ratings to drop to one of the lowest of his entire tenure.

Political storms

On the international stage, Abe took a tough stance on North Korea but sought a role as a peacemaker between the United States and Iran.
He prioritized a close personal relationship with Donald Trump, trying to protect Japan’s key alliance from the then-US president’s “America First” mantra, and attempted to mend relations with Russia and China.
The results have been mixed: Mr. Trump remained keen to force Japan to pay more for US troops stationed in the country, and a deal with Russia over the disputed northern islands remained elusive.

But the breakthrough for the former leader was the holding of the first official talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2014, which aimed to mend the torn ties between the two Asian superpowers, caused by a long-standing territorial struggle.

Shinzo Abe and Wen Jiabao stand directly in front of the soldiers at the ceremony.

Shinzo Abe (right) was the first Japanese leader to visit Beijing since 2001 and met with then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (left). Source: Getty / AFP / Peter Parks

Mr. Abe also took a hard line with South Korea over unresolved wartime disputes and continued to put forward plans to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Throughout his tenure, he weathered political storms, including allegations of nepotism, which slashed his approval rating but had little effect on his power, thanks in part to the weakness of the opposition.
Mr Abe was due to stay until the end of 2021, giving him the opportunity to take part in one final act in his historic tenure – to help with the rescheduling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
One of the last defining moments of his tenure as prime minister was the declaration of a national emergency in response to the national outbreak of COVID-19, requiring people to stay at home and stop their activities.

Additional report by Catriona Stirrat.