Japan

Abe bows out

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo on August 31, two days after he announced his decision to quit. Photo: Koji Sasahara/AP

With U.S. President Donald Trump in New York in September 2019. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

Shinzo Abe steps down as Japan’s Prime Minister because of ill health, but there is speculation that he will continue to push his right-wing agenda from behind the scenes.

The decision of Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Prime Minister in post-War Japan, to resign from office a year before the expiry of his term did not come as a surprise to the Japanese public. Abe was rarely seen for more than a month even as the deadly pandemic once again reared its head in the country. Before his retirement announcement on August 28, Abe had made two visits in quick succession to a hospital for treatment of ulcerative colitis, a recurring bowel disease.

The disease, which he had from an early age, forced him to prematurely step down in 2007 after a year in office as Prime Minster. But that first tenure was also a scandal-tainted one, and not many expected him to make a political comeback. But a weary Japanese public gave him a second chance. From 2007 to 2012, the Prime Minister’s office in Japan was a revolving door with five candidates occupying the post in as many years.

Abe’s second stint as Prime Minister, starting in 2012, beat the record set by his great uncle, Eisaku Sato, as the longest continuously serving Prime Minister. Sato served from 1964 to 1972. During his second stint, Abe survived influence-peddling scandals and won elections with ease, thanks to a weak and divided opposition. In the 2017 elections, he won by a landslide, getting a two-thirds majority in parliament with the help of allied parties. Abe could have got the Constitutional provisions relating to the deployment of armed forces amended, but street protests and adverse public opinion stopped him from taking the precipitate step.

All the same, Abe was able to find loopholes in the Constitution and succeeded in sending the Japan Self Defence Forces, as the country’s army is called, for peace-keeping missions in war-torn countries. In 2015, he got a piece of security legislation passed that allowed Japanese troops to engage in overseas combat missions for the first time since 1945 alongside allied forces. The Abe government justified the move by claiming that it came under the mantle “of collective self-defence”. Abe was also successful in circumventing constitutional restraints on the export of Japanese defence weaponry. Tokyo is engaged in talks with India and other countries for the sale of high-tech weaponry. Japan has already sold weapons to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.

Family connections

Abe’s family connections played an important role in his political ascent. His father, Shintoro Abe, was Foreign Minister and was apparently on the verge of becoming Prime Minister when he fell victim to cancer. His maternal grandfather, Nobuseke Kishi, was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had served as a minister in Prime Minster Hireki Tojo’s Cabinet during the Second World War. Tojo was hanged. But Kishi, who was branded “a Class A” war criminal in 1945 by a war crimes tribunal, was released from prison in 1948. After the onset of the Cold War, the Americans allowed him to enter mainstream politics. Kishi remained unapologetic about Japanese depredations during the War and deeply resented the pacifist Constitution that the U.S. imposed on the country. At the same time, Kishi was an avowed anti-communist and encouraged the permanent presence of U.S. forces in the country, ostensibly to provide the Japanese a security umbrella. He was the architect of the security treaty with the U.S., which obliged the Americans to defend Japan in case it came under attack. The earlier treaty signed in 1951 did not have a clause specifically stating that the U.S. was duty-bound to defend Japan, if hostilities broke out, in lieu of military-basing facilities.

Abe was deeply influenced by his grandfather’s ideological predilections and world view. When he first ran for Prime Minster in 2006, he said that his goal was to change the pacifist Constitution, although public opinion in Japan was opposed to such a move. Even today, the majority of the Japanese remain opposed to any radical changes in the Constitution. Abe was also among the group of right-wing politicians who frequented the Yasukuni shrine, where the remains of the Japanese war dead, many of them notorious war criminals, are interred. Abe visited the shrine even in 2013 after becoming Prime Minister for the second time. The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit the shrine before that was Junichiro Koizumi, another avowed nationalist, in 2006.

Abe has not visited the shrine since then. But he has not stopped his senior ministers and top party functionaries from visiting it every year to commemorate the war dead. China and the two Koreas, which were among the worst sufferers of Japanese occupation, have been denouncing the visits by prominent Japanese politicians to the shrine. Millions of Chinese and Koreans lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese occupation forces.

Abe was also unapologetic about the issue of “comfort women”. This was the term used by the Japanese for women in occupied countries who were forced into prostitution by the Imperial army. Many conservative politicians in Japan, including Abe, were of the view that the Japanese were being unfairly blamed and that demands for an apology and reparations for the women were unjustified. In the Korean peninsula, the issue continues to be an emotive one and has contributed to the rise of anti-Japanese feelings.

Abe thought that he was consigning the issue to the history books when he signed a deal with the former South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, a fellow conservative, in 2015. (Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, had fought alongside the Japanese in the Second World War.) Under the 2015 agreement, Japan accepted partial responsibility and agreed to pay compensation to the handful of “comfort women” still alive. The current President, Moon Jae-in, abrogated the agreement soon after taking over in 2017 and demanded a bigger compensation and a sincere apology.

Relations with Seoul went further downhill after the assets of a few Japanese companies in South Korea were seized as compensation for forced labour during the war. In response, Tokyo imposed a ban on the export of certain high-tech goods. Seoul reacted by imposing similar restrictions. The U.S. was not too happy with the open squabbling between two of its closest military allies in the region. Abe’s heated nationalistic rhetoric and his government’s moves to revise the school curriculum in an attempt to gloss over the country’s misdeeds in the first half of the 20th century had also angered China.

Abe was an enthusiastic supporter of the Barack Obama administration’s military pivot to the East. Under Abe, the Japanese military budget grew bigger every year. This year’s military budget was pegged at $48.5 billion. Abe has been credited for coming up with the “Indo-Pacific strategy”, which is aimed at encircling China militarily. Japan and China are locked in a territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island in the East China Sea. Japan has also fully supported the aggressive moves by the U.S. in the South China Sea.

Abe was also a forceful proponent of the Quadrilateral military alliance (the Quad) comprising the U.S., India, Australia and Japan. He played a big role in the recent revival of the Quad, which is shaping up to be another anti-China alliance in the region. But despite mutual suspicions, Japan’s relations with China improved during the Abe tenure as care was taken not to disturb one of the fundamentals of Japanese foreign policy—the demarcation between economics and politics. Japan derives a lot of economic benefit from ties with China. Most top Japanese companies have their factories in China.

While announcing his resignation, an emotional Abe candidly expressed regret for his failure to achieve some of his cherished goals. Among these were the revision of the country’s pacifist Constitution and the return of the contested Kuriles island chain, which is claimed by Russia and has been under Moscow’s control since the end of the Second World War. He also expressed regret for his failure to get back a handful of Japanese citizens who had been taken to North Korea, allegedly against their will.

Abe, no doubt, would have been disappointed at the COVID-induced postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, for which the country had invested billions of dollars. He had played a key role in ensuring that Japan bagged the hosting rights for the Games, which would have constituted a fitting finale to his political career.

Abe, who never hid his right-wing nationalistic predilections, has been praised for steering the country through a turbulent period. When he took over, Japan was laid low by a devastating earthquake and tsunami which triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Abe was only partially successful in reviving the Japanese economy, which had gone into recession. His much touted “Abenomics” had pledged to stimulate growth through government spending. The moves helped Japan to temporarily get over the economic stagnation that started in the late 1990s and to boost the stock markets.

But the coronavirus pandemic dealt a significant blow to the economy. The economy has shrunk at an annual rate of 27.8 per cent, according to data for the April-June period. It has been the worst contraction of the economy witnessed in post-War Japan. Unemployment remains low, but Japan has the largest debt in the developed world. It was during Abe’s tenure that the Chinese economy overtook Japan to become the second largest in the world.

At the beginning of his second tenure, Abe talked about creating a new Japan “where woman can shine”. However, under the World Economic Forum’s gender equality ranking, Japan is placed 121st on the list of 153 countries, making it the worst performer in the G-7 group of nations.

Abe, unlike previous Prime Ministers, tried to muzzle sections of the media. His attempts to the muzzle the NHK, the national broadcaster, came in for considerable criticism. Japan is now ranked 66th in the “freedom of press” rankings. When he took over, it was 22nd.

Abe’s ideological soulmates in power, U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, responded to his decision to quit with apparent sorrow. Trump hailed Abe as the best Prime Minister Japan had ever had, though he had given Abe a hard time by threatening to raise tariff barriers and demanding billions of dollars more for retaining U.S. troops in the country. Modi tweeted that he was “pained” to hear about the ill health of his “dear friend” and said that under him “the Indo-Japanese partnership had become deeper and stronger than ever before”. The two of them were to meet in Guwahati in December 2019, but Abe had to cancel his trip at the 11th hour as protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act gripped Assam.

The LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) Diet members will choose a successor to Abe in mid September. A former Defence Minister, Shigeru Ishiba, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and the LDP’s policy chief Fumio Kishida are among the contenders. There is talk that Kishida is Abe’s favoured candidate. But Suga has emerged as the favourite among LDP lawmakers. Abe has said that he will continue to serve in the Diet. Many fear that he will engage in back-seat driving to ensure that his nationalistic right-wing policies are not abandoned.

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