What Shinzo Abe leaves behind for Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new prime minister

Yoshihide Suga is Japan’s new prime minister. Following Shinzo Abe’s resignation, what legacy does the nation’s longest serving leader leave behind?

“It is gut wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals”. With heavy words and teary eyes Shinzo Abe unexpectedly announced his resignation after seven years and eight months as the prime minister of Japan, the world’s third largest economy, on the 28th of August. A decision he attributed to the worsening of a chronic disease, ulcerative colitis, that he has suffered from for years; the same condition that forced him to resign from his first term in 2007, after only a year in office.

Shinzo Abe's resignation speech on a Tokyo screen
Shinzo Abe’s resignation speech is aired in Tokyo, the Japanese capital © Carl Court/Getty Images

What will Abe be remembered for, apart from being Japan’s longest serving prime minister? Perhaps the only thing that everyone agrees on is that his legacy can’t be summed up by a single policy or a defining moment. His leadership was characterised by a number of reform strategies, (partial) successes and missed opportunities. Now, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will take the reins of power to deal with unfinished business, such as the crisis caused by the pandemic and the dilemma of the Olympic Games.

Who is Shinzo Abe, a biography

To understand who Shinzo Abe is and what he represents for Japan, we have to look back. If there was ever such a thing as a “political family”, then his would be it: Nobusuke Kishi, his grandfather on his mother’s side, was prime minister between 1957 and 1960, and great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who led the government between 1964 and 1972, was the country’s longest serving premier before his great-nephew. Without forgetting father Shintaro Abe, foreign minister from 1982 to 1986.

Kishi Nobusuke, Shinzo Abe's grandfather
Nobusuke Kishi, Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, was the prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960 © Keystone/Getty Images

After completing his education in Tokyo, where he was born in 1954, and the United States, Shinzo Abe worked for a steel manufacturer before undertaking his political career in the LDP, a conservative party that has been in power almost without interruption since the middle of the last century. Notwithstanding his elite background, “from the moment he entered the Diet (the Japanese parliament, ed.) in 1993, he’s someone who looked at the powers that be, what you would call the post-war establishment, and saw them as having failed in the fundamental job of building a strong state and independent Japan,” says Tobias Harris, author of The Iconoclast, a biography of Abe that was published the day before he announced his resignation.

In fact, his political rise came on the back of his engagement with matters of national pride, such as the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean regime in the 1960s. A matter that remains unsolved to this day, as, even as prime minister, Abe didn’t succeed in repatriating dozens if not hundreds of abductees.

Following popular leader Junichiro Koizumi‘s resignation in 2006, Abe became Japan’s first post-war premier born after the end of the conflict. Notwithstanding his resignation after a one-year term marred by corruption scandals, Abe returned at the government’s helm with two crushing electoral victories in 2012 and 2016. Following the former, he inaugurated his mandate with a visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War II, including a number of war criminals. A gesture that set the tone for Abe’s desire to return Japan to world power status and a marked vein of historical revisionism.

Anti-Japan protests in Seoul
A protest in South Korea, which together with North Korea was colonised by Japan between 1910 and 1945, against Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Low approval ratings

To have given Japan a new and important international role was perhaps one of Abe’s greatest successes. But he left the premiership with his lowest-ever approval ratings, in the midst of a complicated domestic political moment due, of course, to the coronavirus. Even though Japan has managed to keep its infection rates low relative to other industrialised nations, the government’s slow response to the crisis left many citizens disappointed.

However, the cracks had already started to form before the pandemic. Corruption scandals, some involving the prime minister directly – such as the misuse of tax-payer money to organise annual hanami parties – and the shortcomings of his signature economic reform package, Abenomics, were already eroding Abe’s popularity.

Shinzo Abe wearing a mask
Shinzo Abe wearing one of the masks distributed to all Japanese citizens as part of the government’s Sars-CoV-2 containment strategy © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Lights and shadows of Abenomics 

I’ll break down any and all walls looming ahead of the Japanese economy and map out a new trajectory for growth. This is precisely the mission of Abenomics.

Shinzo Abe

Now that it’s time to look back at the leader’s legacy, political commentators’ varied and often contrasting judgements go to show how Abenomics’ mixed results allow anyone to find evidence to support almost any position.

“The outgoing prime minister has done a far better job than is commonly acknowledged,” writes The Economist. “Before Covid-19 struck, ‘Abenomics’ was succeeding, albeit slowly, in resuscitating the economy. He leaves a much more impressive legacy than his muted exit suggests”.

In fact, Abe’s promise to lift Japan from decades of deflation (a general fall in prices) resulted in higher profits for large companies and increases share prices as a result of a monetary stimulus programme. “However, the two per cent annual inflation target set by the central bank and the government to bust deflation remains nowhere in sight more than seven years on,” states a Japan Times editorial.

Japanese graduates at a job fair
Japanese graduates at a job fair © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“One thing about his legacy is recognising that he oversaw the second-longest stretch of growth in the post-war era,” Harris points out. “Yes, it was short-lived; it halted in the face of the consumption tax last year (which was increased from 8 to 10 per cent, ed.) and Japan finds itself in a recession due to the pandemic. But employment numbers matter too: having the lowest unemployment rate and the highest job to applicant ratio ever, giving school-leavers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to finding a job”.

Womenomics hasn’t made women shine

They want women to shine for them, not for women themselves. It’s never about empowerment.

Wakako Fukuda, feminist and SEALDs co-founder

The impact of Abe’s policies is particularly debated on the topic of women. With the womenomics programme he aimed to build “a Japan in which women can shine” by incentivising their economic role, especially that of mothers. Therefore, waiting lists for kindergartens were reduced, though not eliminated, parental leave policies were improved and a law was introduced obliging companies to set female employment targets.

These reforms allowed two million extra women to enter the job market, with an employment rate of over 77 per cent – higher than that of other industrialised countries such as the United States, where a little over half of women work.

But in Japan, half of female employment is concentrated in low-paid, part-time, temporary, non-regular jobs. A little over one tenth of managerial positions are occupied by women, well below the government’s 30 per cent target, and Japan lost eleven positions in this year’s Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranking 121st out of 153 countries.

An embarrassing result for the man behind womenomics, whose cabinet was composed of 19 men and a single woman. With only 10 per cent of female members of parliament, the country has one of the worst rates of female political representation in the world. “Japan’s gender gap is by far the largest among all advanced economies and has widened over the past year,” according to the WEF report. With these preconditions, the coronavirus has further exposed the vulnerabilities of female employment: of the 970,000 non-regular workers who lost their jobs last April, over 700,000 were women.

Japanese worker in a textile factory
Half of female employment in Japan is concentrated in low-paid, non-regular jobs © Carl Court/Getty Images

A new role for Japan

Abe, therefore, didn’t succeed in significantly improving women’s position in Japanese society. He was, however, more effective in the realm of international relations. “He made Japan visible in ways in which it hadn’t been in a long time, converting his political stability at home into regional and global leadership,” Harris comments. “The numbers bear it out, he was present in ways in which a Japanese prime minister hasn’t been pretty much ever: 81 foreign trips in total, 100 or something countries visited”.

The outgoing premier was adept at keeping good relations with President Donald Trump, particularly important given that Japan’s defensive capabilities depend on security arrangements with the United States (which are in the process of being renegotiated). He also strengthened relations with countries such as Australia and India, though failed to secure an agreement with Russia over the disputed Kuril Islands, which are under Moscow’s administration but some of which Tokyo claims as its own.

Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Shinzo Abe, Akie Abe
Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump together with Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe © Kiyoshi Ota – Pool/Getty Images

Another sour note is the deterioration of relations with South Korea. Abe initiated a trade war against this key neighbour because its supreme court ruled that Japanese companies should pay reparations to people used as slave labour during the occupation of Korea in World War II. If we also factor in the former leader’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine and his threat to retract his country’s official apology to Korean comfort women, enslaved by the Japanese army during the conflict, it’s clear how Abe’s conservative and revisionist nationalism found one of its targets in the ex-colony.

Photo of a Korean comfort woman
The photo of a Korean comfort woman is shown during an event for the National Liberation Day of Korea, which marks the end of the Japanese invasion © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Strong man democracy

Nobosuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather, was suspected, but never charged, of war crimes. One of his goals as premier was to change Article 9 of the constitution architected by the United States, winners of the Pacific War (1941-1945), which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” therefore “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”. Kishi’s unfulfilled aspirations to resuscitate the country’s military sovereignty also became those of his grandson.

While Abe never managed to change Article 9, the passing of security laws to supply military aid to Japanese allies in 2015 was “a watershed departure from Japan’s post-war pacifism,” Rob Fahey of Waseda University in Tokyo told The Diplomat. Around 120,000 people participated in the protests, the largest since the 1960s, against the legislation. “By pushing it through despite public opposition, Abe succeeded in making more people lose faith in democracy,” Wakako Fukuda, co-founder of the SEALDs movement that emerged to oppose the security laws, told the Deep Dive podcast. “People felt their voice and actions don’t matter anymore (and) that our movement failed”.

“Abe’s vision of democracy wasn’t one of free-wheeling debate,” Harris points out. “He wanted to move Japan away from a style of democracy that made room for minority opinions and compromise across party lines. ‘I have majorities, I control the government, I have policies I want to carry out’: this is the view he inherited from his grandfather. In his memoirs he talks about the importance of a leader standing two or three steps ahead of the public”.

But not on environmental policy…

Even though Abe’s vision of strong leadership translated into a more robust role for Tokyo internationally, his record on environmental policy, especially climate change action, was disappointing to say the least. Japan is the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter and its reliance on fossil fuels has increased since nuclear power production was halted following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. At the COP25 in Madrid, its government failed to renounce coal, which makes up 30 per cent of its energy mix against 18 per cent for renewables, according to data from 2018.

Damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis in Japan
Damage caused by Typhoon Hagibis, which hit Japan in October 2019. According to experts, typhoons will become more intense as a result of global warming © Carl Court/Getty Images

Notwithstanding its vulnerability to climate change, Japan still hasn’t improved its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), sticking to a 26 per cent emissions reduction goal by 2030, highly insufficient to reach the targets set by the Paris Agreement. And while the current crisis caused by the pandemic offers important opportunities for adopting sustainable development models, the government’s economic stimulus package “only includes two points related to decarbonisation: digital transformation, and support for self-consumption type solar power plants,” Ken Tanaka, Japan Climate Initiative Secretariat, told Climate Foresight in an interview.

Outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe with new prime minister Yoshihide Suga
Outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe with Yoshihide Suga, who won the LPD elections to decide Abe’s successor. Suga was sworn in on 16 September © Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, Pool

What Japan does Abe leave Suga?

I want them to stop letting middle-aged men with outdated mindsets dictate everything in politics.

Wakako Fukuda, feminist and SEALDs co-founder

With only a year until the next elections, the new prime minister Yoshihide Suga will be especially preoccupied with tackling the recession, balancing the uptick in economic and social activities with the risk of new peaks of Sars-Cov-2, which could compromise Japan’s chance to host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, delayed (for now) to next summer. It’s unlikely, therefore, that there will be many changes in terms of environmental and climate policy, at least not for now.

While 71-year-old Suga’s background is humble, the son of a strawberry farmer and a teacher, therefore setting him apart from an entrenched political elite, he was chosen by the members of his party to give a sense of continuity with Abe, with whom he worked closely for almost eight years.

Harris is confident in Suga’s abilities. “He’s even more of a political realist than Abe, recognising what Japan needs to do to ensure its prosperity. More than a lot of LDP politicians, he has a claim to being a national politician with a national perspective. He doesn’t belong to a faction, he grew up in rural Japan but made his career in urban Japan, he has a more holistic view of politics and government than a lot of people who’ve occupied the post of prime minister”.

In any case, his decisions will be heavily shaped by the outgoing prime minister’s legacy. The power therefore lies with Japanese voters who will cast their ballots in 2021 to decide whether Abe’s vision will continue to govern them in the years to come.

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