How Shinzo Abe Changed Japan

The assassinated former prime minister leaves behind a complex legacy.

By , a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.
A closeup photo shows a smiling Abe wearing a blue suit.
A closeup photo shows a smiling Abe wearing a blue suit.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an event before the Liberal Democratic Party’s annual convention in Tokyo on Feb. 10, 2019. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s career should have ended in September 2007. Forced to resign only one year into his term as prime minister after leading his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to an ignominious defeat in upper house elections in July 2007, Abe himself seemed to share the widely held view that his once-promising political career was over.

But five years later, he would be back on top of the LDP, setting the stage for a dramatic and unlikely return to the premiership in December 2012. He would finally leave office in September 2020 after a record-setting seven years and eight months as prime minister, after which he would begin the third act of his career, where his leadership of the LDP’s largest faction and his reputation as a leading global statesman gave him extraordinary power to influence the direction of the Japanese government.

Abe thus stood at the pinnacle of power in Japan when, on July 8, he was felled by two blasts from an assassin’s improvised shotgun while campaigning for LDP candidates ahead of upper house elections on July 10.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s career should have ended in September 2007. Forced to resign only one year into his term as prime minister after leading his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to an ignominious defeat in upper house elections in July 2007, Abe himself seemed to share the widely held view that his once-promising political career was over.

But five years later, he would be back on top of the LDP, setting the stage for a dramatic and unlikely return to the premiership in December 2012. He would finally leave office in September 2020 after a record-setting seven years and eight months as prime minister, after which he would begin the third act of his career, where his leadership of the LDP’s largest faction and his reputation as a leading global statesman gave him extraordinary power to influence the direction of the Japanese government.

Abe thus stood at the pinnacle of power in Japan when, on July 8, he was felled by two blasts from an assassin’s improvised shotgun while campaigning for LDP candidates ahead of upper house elections on July 10.

The scion of a distinguished but controversial political family, it is perhaps not surprising that he would ascend to these heights. But Abe was never interested in power for its own sake. Entering politics in the 1990s, he inherited a mission from his grandfather and former Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi: to remove the constraints imposed by the United States—with the help, partly, of the Japanese political class—on Japan’s ability to exercise power on the world stage, particularly its postwar constitution and “peace” clause that restricted Japan’s military power.

Entering politics in the early 1990s, as the end of the Cold War and the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble disrupted a complacent political establishment, Abe and his fellow young conservatives saw an opportunity to “[break] away from the postwar regime,” as he would put it during his first premiership.

The new conservatives wanted wholesale changes to the Japanese state. They wanted to strengthen the power of the prime minister, who (for most of the postwar period) had been barely a “first among equals” in the cabinet. They also wanted to build a national security establishment, complete with a full-fledged defense ministry and a national security council under the prime minister’s leadership that would enhance the government’s ability to manage crises. They wanted to limit the power of bureaucrats and parliamentary backbenchers to pursue their narrow interests at the expense of the national interest. And they wanted to loosen the constraints that prevented Japan from having a proper military capable of fighting alongside the United States and other partners.

But it was only after Abe’s time in the wilderness following his 2007 resignation that he developed what had been the missing piece in this program: economic power.

After taking the premiership in 2006, Abe admitted that his knowledge and experience of economic policymaking was limited—a critical flaw given that Japanese voters, like voters in other democracies, care first and foremost about bread-and-butter economic issues. Back on his party’s backbenches and in opposition after the LDP’s historic defeat in 2009, Abe began to think more seriously about the problem of Japan’s economic stagnation.

Joining forces with renegade economic thinkers who wanted the Bank of Japan to tackle prolonged deflation more aggressively, he and his advisers developed what would eventually become known as Abenomics, a program of monetary stimulus from “an entirely new dimension,” together with expansionary fiscal policy and a host of industrial, labor, and regulatory policies intended to shift production into high-tech sectors and slow the decline of Japan’s labor force.

While critics would accuse Abe of opportunistically using Abenomics as a fig leaf for his other political ambitions, the fact is that it was a serious, sustained, and flexible attempt to grapple with Japan’s growth challenges. An expansive program, it was not without contradictions—and by no means was it an unqualified success—but it nevertheless signaled a maturity in Abe’s thinking. Whereas as a junior lawmaker he had been fixated on military power and some of the more symbolic legacies of the U.S. occupation of Japan, by his second premiership, he had learned that he could not neglect the economic foundation of national power. To secure Japan’s future in a more competitive world, Japan’s economy would need a new foundation for growth.

Thanks in part to Abenomics—which at the very least reversed years of stagnant wages; boosted corporate profits, tax revenues, and tourist flows to record highs; and reduced unemployment to record lowsAbe was able to end the revolving door of short-lived premierships that had followed his first premiership and win election after election during his second administration.

His durability in turn enabled him to pursue long-desired ambitions to create a national security council, concentrate bureaucratic personnel decisions in the prime minister’s office, reinterpret the Japanese Constitution to permit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense, and even launch a serious but ultimately unsuccessful bid to amend the constitution.

It also freed him to pursue an ambitious foreign policy that not only strengthened the U.S.-Japan relationship but also deepened its ties with regional partners, such as India and Australia—laying the groundwork for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—as well as leading Southeast Asian countries. It also enabled Japan to assume a leadership role in the pursuit of regional and global economic integration after the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Although his successes were weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which reversed economic gains and revealed the limits of reforms that strengthened and centralized the Japanese state, when he stepped down in August 2020 due to personal health reasons, he left his successors a blueprint for wielding power at home and abroad that thus far has not been surpassed.

Meanwhile, he had also acquired for himself the political acumen and stature that made him a formidable political power until the day of his death—a leader who was poised to play central roles in forthcoming debates about fiscal and defense policy. Abe’s death leaves a sizable vacuum for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his colleagues to fill.

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. Twitter: @observingjapan

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.