The Many Contradictions of Shinzo Abe

Even as he pushed for closer U.S. ties, Japan’s former prime minister clung to his belief in the legitimacy of Japanese conquest.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A close up of Abe's face as he looks down with a serious expression in front of a red-orange background.
A close up of Abe's face as he looks down with a serious expression in front of a red-orange background.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacts during a joint press conference with Italy’s prime minister at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome on April 24, 2019. TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

From my first close-up encounters with Japan’s recently assassinated former leader, Shinzo Abe, it was clear that this was a special politician—not just by the standards of a country with a revolving door of leaders whose shopworn look and turgid rhetoric earned them the diagnosis of sufferers of “metal fatigue” by critics but also by the standards of a world stage that, by that point in my career, I had become familiar with.

Already, as deputy chief cabinet secretary in the early 2000s when I first observed him, Abe had an aura of dynamism, self-confidence, and ambition. In the world of conservative Japanese politics, he was the bluest of blue bloods, a true princeling as the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who had served as a powerful prime minister early in the post-World War II era. But the forcefield of authority that seemed to surround Abe felt more like a personal attribute than an inherited one.

I could sense this in the self-assured way that he handled briefings for journalists when he spoke extemporaneously and with muscular language. And I saw it even closer at hand in the way he handled arrangements for a rare summit in 2002 in Pyongyang, North Korea, between his boss at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

From my first close-up encounters with Japan’s recently assassinated former leader, Shinzo Abe, it was clear that this was a special politician—not just by the standards of a country with a revolving door of leaders whose shopworn look and turgid rhetoric earned them the diagnosis of sufferers of “metal fatigue” by critics but also by the standards of a world stage that, by that point in my career, I had become familiar with.

Already, as deputy chief cabinet secretary in the early 2000s when I first observed him, Abe had an aura of dynamism, self-confidence, and ambition. In the world of conservative Japanese politics, he was the bluest of blue bloods, a true princeling as the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who had served as a powerful prime minister early in the post-World War II era. But the forcefield of authority that seemed to surround Abe felt more like a personal attribute than an inherited one.

I could sense this in the self-assured way that he handled briefings for journalists when he spoke extemporaneously and with muscular language. And I saw it even closer at hand in the way he handled arrangements for a rare summit in 2002 in Pyongyang, North Korea, between his boss at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Abe personally took charge of some of the stickiest issues in this diplomacy, such as Japan’s quest to learn of the fate of Japanese citizens who had been allegedly abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s as well as to recover the remains of those abductees who had died there. In Abe’s position as deputy chief cabinet secretary, many other politicians would have taken care to avoid the spotlight. But for Abe, who seemed to relish having the cameras on him, the challenge was avoiding getting too much attention.

Abe was one of the first world leaders I covered who was roughly my own age. In 2006, his ambitions would be realized when he became the youngest prime minister in postwar Japan at age 52. His first stint in that office ended like that of most of his predecessors though, with a brief tenure that ended just a year later due to health problems. It is a mark of his remarkable drive that five years later, in 2012, he would return to office and end his career in 2020 as the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

Here, already, we can see hints of the many deep contradictions that this rare politician, brought down by a lone gunman, would come to embody. Abe’s dream was to modernize Japan—and to do so by modernizing his country’s politics. Operationally though, he always had a more fundamental—even inescapable—priority: to strengthen the position of the long dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he led. Few truisms have been more accurate than the old saw that the LDP is neither liberal nor democratic.

Abe succeeded in maintaining and arguably even strengthening his party’s near-stranglehold on power, but the LDP has never been keen on bold reform—and in some regards, this was true of Abe himself. Take, for example, his pledge to implement what he called “womenomics,” by which he meant making Japan “a place where women shine.” Despite the economic demographic urgency of welcoming women into the workplace as equals in pay and status, and even into the country’s defense forces, progress in this regard has been halting, and prominent LDP politicians frequently lapse into vulgar sexism in their public language.

Abe liked the suffix “-nomics” and was even more deeply associated with a set of policies aimed at the competitive reinvigoration of his country, widely known as “Abenomics.” It is true that during his long tenure, the stock market leaped after a long period of stagnation, but economic inequality also widened substantially during his time in office. The jury is also out on the degree to which he succeeded in positioning Japan to compete with industrially dynamic neighbors, such as South Korea and especially China.

In purely political terms, Abe’s long second tenure in office seemed like it might mark a break with the endless cast of ephemeral LDP leaders who shuffled into and then promptly out of the prime minister’s office. But Abe’s immediate, handpicked successor, the rhetorically clumsy and faceless Yoshihide Suga, only held office from September 2020 until the following September. Abe clearly hoped to temper the effects of this chronic short termism at the top in Japanese politics by cultivating maximal influence as a godfather and éminence grise with at least one foot always prominently on stage, as his was during his deputyship under Koizumi. But with his death, that dream, too, is gone.

In foreign relations, Abe was the most active and dynamic Japanese political figure at least since Yasuhiro Nakasone, who spent five years as prime minister in the 1980s and struck up a close working relationship with, among other world leaders, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. For Abe’s part, he was quick to jump into his airplane and tireless in his personal diplomacy. This meant becoming the first foreign leader to visit with a then-newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York and having more in-person encounters with Russian President Vladimir Putin than with any other world leader.

And through sheer persistence, it meant overcoming Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ostentatious disdain for Abe: The two finally met for the first time at a meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in Beijing in 2014. The photograph of this first meeting is a classic and can be read in many ways. To me, despite his look of exhaustion, Abe seems to have a twinkle of satisfaction that he finally obtained a mano a mano with the powerful leader of the giant next door, whereas Xi’s face looks almost sheepish, as if he was thinking, “I can’t believe I’ve been brought to shake hands with this guy.”

Abe and Xi stand side by side facing forward toward the camera while shaking hands.
Abe and Xi stand side by side facing forward toward the camera while shaking hands.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2014.Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/Getty Images


In the end though, what did Abe’s force of persistence and personality win for Japan?

Many in the U.S. foreign relations and national security worlds rushed forward to lionize Abe after his death. They celebrated his persistent efforts to strengthen the defense alliance with the United States, to become a much more active and muscular presence in the Asia Pacific region, to revise the Japanese Constitution (written by Americans during the postwar occupation of Japan), and above all—and related to each of these items—to help the United States by serving more directly as a bulwark to a rising China.

But here, even more than in other areas of Abe’s legacy, the contradictions abound. Arguably, the best thing Japan could do to improve its security would be to engineer with persistence and discipline a deep rapprochement with South Korea. Yet Abe’s family history—particularly as the grandson of Kishi, who barely escaped being judged as a war criminal—seemed to render this impossible for him.

His dream was instead to create what he called “forward-looking” relations with Korea and an unapologetic attitude toward his country’s past. That meant never abandoning the hope that he and future Japanese leaders could pray at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto abode for the spirits of the country’s war dead, explicitly including those condemned as criminals for their role in Japan’s imperial wars of the 20th century.

Even as he pushed for closer ties with the United States, meanwhile, Abe clung to his belief in the noble intentions behind and even legitimacy of Japanese conquest—and therefore, the illegitimacy of the postwar trials and, by implication, the U.S. occupation and the Japanese Constitution written by the Americans, which forever forbids Japan from possessing an army that can pursue offensive war aims. But the same Japanese public that kept Abe in office for so long never followed him all the way down that road. Abe died still pushing for a revision of the so-called peace constitution, and in this regard, he died a frustrated man.

It will be for future generations of Japanese to decide just how far to go in recommitting toward an alliance with the United States. Whatever happens, China will always be Japan’s much larger—and for the foreseeable future, more economically and militarily powerful—neighbor. Japan trades more with China than with the United States, and in the case of conflict, it would be devastated by a Western-imposed sanctions regime on China along the lines of U.S.- and European-led efforts to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. A U.S. shooting war with China would present Japan with even more terrifying choices. Is its alliance with Washington worth having Chinese missiles rain down on Japanese territory or sink Japanese vessels at sea?

We must all hope that things never come to this, but hope is not a strategy. There is a case to be made, as I argued in my 2017 book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, that the period of maximal risk of war in East Asia spans the next couple of decades. After then, profound demographic change in China will cause Beijing to devote more and more of its wealth to retirement and social welfare payments at home and to pull back on its ambitions in the near and far overseas.

Under such a scenario, Abe’s vision for Japan becomes only one of several competing logics. Coming more fully to terms with its past and drawing closer to its neighbors—which is not to say turning away from the United States—seems like an equally obvious alternative possibility.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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