Commentary September 1, 2020

Three Hits and Three Misses: What is Prime Minister Abe’s Legacy?

Despite this long period as prime minister, it is not entirely clear that Abe accomplished major policy goals.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a podium with audience seen at the front
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 28: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at the prime minister official residence on August 28, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation due to health concerns. Franck Robichon - Pool/Getty Images

On August 28, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he will step down from the position, citing serious health concerns. What is his legacy and what lies ahead? Below, I list his three major accomplishments (hits) and disappointments (misses) and consider who is likely to succeed him.

Hit: Abe’s greatest accomplishment is that he kept winning elections and stayed in power, becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history. In a country where only one prime minister (Koizumi) lasted more than two years in the last three decades, this is a significant achievement. He started his (second) term in 2012 when Japan was still reeling from the triple disaster of 2011 and the mismanagement by the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). He initially restored confidence in Japan, energized the economy with bold policies, and brought stability to Japanese politics. The weakening and eventual disintegration of the DPJ facilitated his streak of electoral victories, but he deserves credit for launching several policy initiatives to revitalize the stagnant and aging economic giant and for incorporating social welfare policies – many of which were proposed by opposition parties – to stave off dissatisfaction among voters. He raised the consumption tax rate twice and still won six straight elections, an amazing feat considering how past prime ministers faired after a tax hike.

Miss: Despite this long period as prime minister, it is not entirely clear that he accomplished major policy goals. Abenomics – Abe’s signature economic policy – reinvigorated the Japanese economy, shooting stocks up to great heights, but the economy as a whole did not grow any faster under his watch and per capita GDP shrank, exacerbating economic inequality. Revising the Constitution, widely seen as his ultimate goal as prime minister, did not come close to being a reality, even though he launched a number of trial balloons. Abe also proposed many new policy initiatives with catchy phrases – womanomics, work-life balance reform, reviving rural Japan, etc. – but was often criticized for producing only an impression that he is doing something (yatterukan) rather than actually getting things done.

Hit: Foreign policy was Abe’s strong suit. Having outserved most G7 leaders, his stature at international meetings rose to a height few Japanese prime ministers reached before. Overcoming the initial perception as a hawkish nationalist ideologue, he demonstrated savvy pragmatism in foreign affairs, developing strong relationships with the United States, particularly with President Trump, and recovering from the rocky start with President Xi to forge a practical partnership with China. His administration also passed a series of legislation that advanced realist security policies and popularized a vision of Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which other countries including the United States bought into. Furthermore, despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Abe marched on and led the charge toward the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a rare example of Japan leading a multilateral agreement without support from the United States.

Miss: Yet, Abe failed to achieve some key foreign policy goals. The issue of abduction of Japanese by North Korea, which prompted him to national prominence when he was a young cabinet member under Prime Minister Koizumi, did not see any progress, nor did territorial negotiations with Russia – another foreign policy issue he expended a good deal of capital on. South Korea was another thorn on his side: the “comfort women” agreement could have been Abe’s major accomplishment, but domestic political turmoil in South Korea led to President Moon’s scuttling of the agreement, which sent the Japan-South Korea relations into a downward spiral. This development had more to do with South Korean politics than Abe, but he still could have tried to repair the damage. Instead, he threw in a towel on Moon and escalated tensions with South Korea, when the two countries should be close allies collaborating to cope with China’s assertiveness and the North Korean nuclear threat.

Hit: Abe’s cabinet accumulated enormous power over bureaucrats by holding authority on personnel decisions, which is critical in controlling them. This shift of power from bureaucrats to politicians was what the DPJ advocated when it became the ruling party. Abe nearly perfected this transfer of power and established a system under which the prime minister can take the initiative for new policies, going over opposition from career bureaucrats, and seek voters’ judgment about the merits of the policy in subsequent elections. This departs from decades of political practice in Japan, whereby bureaucrats set major policies, and most politicians merely parrot policy goals, which is unconducive to major policy changes needed to energize the stagnant economy and society. Abe leaves in place the cabinet apparatus that could empower the next prime minister to launch major policy initiatives.

Miss: The downside of the concentration of power is corruption. A series of scandals that revealed excessively cozy relationships between Abe and his supporters threatened Abe’s hold on power in the last few years. As is often the case, the coverup was worse than the initial infraction in the major financial scandals, and other transgressions challenged the public’s sense of fairness as Abe’s supporters – politicians, government officials, business leaders, journalists, or celebrities – allegedly received special treatment. The lack of accountability undermined Abe’s credibility toward the end, and the weakened administration struggled to handle the coronavirus crisis. Despite the relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases and victims in Japan, Abe received few applauses for his handling of the crisis. Even though his health was the main reason for his resignation, all these recent developments sapped the energy out of his cabinet, setting the stage for his resignation.

Who’s Next?

Abe’s abrupt departure prompted a number of party leaders to jockey for the successor position. As of this writing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has all but secured the position, having picked up support from key factions within the ruling LDP. Fumio Kishida and Shigeru Ishiba will remain on the ballot but other major candidates such as Defense Minister Taro Kono have decided not to run this time.

Suga has been the most important partner for Abe in the cabinet along with Deputy Prime Minister Aso, contributing to the consolidation of power in the cabinet and executing various policy initiatives and legislative successes. Suga would likely carry forward many of Abe’s key policies, and with his tactical savvy and the potent cabinet apparatus that he helped create, has the potential to become a powerful prime minister. On the other hand, he would only have a year before the next election for LDP presidency (because he would be filling Abe’s remaining term) and he would have to account for Abe’s negative legacies, in some of which he is seen as complicit. These factors lead many observers to predict a short stint for him, but Suga is a scrappy self-made man who rose from a modest background, and his political instincts and already strong hold on power are not to be underestimated.

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