One year has passed since the charismatic former Japanese Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo, a great friend of India, was assassinated during a campaign speech for the Upper House elections in Nara on 8 July 2022. It is a timely tribute to the great leader in analysing his contributions and what legacy he left for the future generation. It is difficult to comprehend that an entire year has passed since his tragic death. It is worth remembering him for his pioneering focus on matters of diplomacy, national security and how to arrest declining births. All of these were no easy task.
While in office, Abe played a significant role in reforming Japan’s Basic Act on Education. He was instrumental in security-related legislation such as the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets and establishing the National Security Council (NSC). These initiatives were transformative in reshaping the post-War framework of Japan.
Considerable debates and discussions took place on all his initiatives and were adopted through democratic process. For example, in October 2019, he secured 2 trillion Yen (about $13.85 billion) by raising the consumption tax rate from 8 to 10 per cent. This resource mobilisation helped Abe to complete his key initiatives such as free early childhood education and childcare, and alleviate the financial burden on families in higher education. There was also a shift in focus within the social security system, whereby his policy saw a transition from a predominantly senior-citizen centered approach to one that prioritised the needs of children and young people.
At the political level, despite some differences with his coalition partner the Komeito, he put focus on political stability of the government. This was noteworthy as he was convinced that this shall lead to the advancement of policies helpful for the people and the nation. Even on the issue of enacting security-related laws, he worked hard to find consensus with the coalition partner which had reservations on some issues. This was not easy either. Abe faced criticism for what his critics labelled as his “war legislation” and accused of “reviving conscription” but the bills were passed in the Diet. National security was his top priority.
The security situation in the region has further deteriorated since Abe’s departure especially after the Ukraine war and intensifying of the US-China rivalry but his policy thrust now is helpful for Japan to navigate through the turbulent waters. This legacy of Abe Japan is relevance now.
At another level, even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Abe administration addressed the issue of accumulation of treated water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the strategy for its subsequent release into the ocean. Because of Abe’s farsighted approach the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 4 July 2023 approved Japan’s plan to release a huge amount of treated nuclear wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima power plant into the ocean. There were fierce resistance from Beijing and some local residents. The UN nuclear watchdog’s green signal to Japan to release more than a million tons of treated radioactive water into the ocean was consistent with global safety standards. The agency revealed that releasing treated radioactive water from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima plant would have a “negligible radiological impact on people and the environment”. This is big part of Abe’s legacy.
Parties at both ends of the political spectrum both left and right, are still seeing merit in the charismatic politician’s policies even after a year of his departure. His critics however are still unforgiving who complain that Abe made attempts to dismantle Japan’s post-War pacifism.
The conservative camps are still confused after Abe’s departure and unable to find a steady path in his absence. The ruling party faction that Abe once led is nowhere near choosing a successor. Hiroshige Seko, one of Abe’s closest confidants, and LDP’s Upper House secretary-general and a central figure in the selection of the new leadership in the faction that Abe formally led, is of the opinion that even in the absence of a successor to Abe as faction leader, Abe’s policy direction does not need to change. Seko worked as an aide to Abe during his first stint from 2006 to 2007 and as deputy chief Cabinet secretary and economy minister during his second term from 2012 to 2020. Ryu Shionoya continues to remain as the acting head of the LDP faction that once Abe led.
But the process is on. The faction that Abe led is the largest in the LDP. A meeting of officials of the faction was held on 6 July 2023, where two conflicting courses emerged during the talks. The faction that has 100 members was expected to choose one leader of the faction. This did not happen. Though Shionoya proposed to choose a faction leader and was seconded by Hakubun Shimomura, co-leader of the faction, Hiroshige Seko voiced opposition, suggesting that the faction management should be left to a group of five lawmakers who all hold important posts – Seko, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, the LDP policy chief Koichi Hagiuda, Chairman of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee Tsuyoshi Takagi, and economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
What Seko’s counterproposal really meant was that both Shionoya and Shimomura should leave the stage of faction leadership. Shimomura countered saying the group of five cannot be given carte blanche over faction matters. With no consensus emerging in the 40-minute meeting, and faction unity emerging more important, the faction members were worried as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was expected to reshuffle his Cabinet and the LDP executive line-up. Though more discussions are expected within the faction, the inconclusive meeting of 6 July are not good sign and there could be fear that the faction will finally break up.
This particular case is an interesting subject of study how factionalism and politics within a particular faction in Japan’ governance process works. The group leadership structure does not seem to be the ideal one for future faction management. The members of the faction must be missing Abe more now than ever before. The absence of a leader able to replace Abe and take the lead in the conservative camp weighs heavily on the future of Japanese politics.
On the economy, while Kishida set his own course with his “new capitalism” formula, the influence of Abenomics looms large, with the Bank of Japan maintaining its ultra-easy monetary policy. This is reflected in the stock market witnessing outside growth amid modest economic gains.
This being said, the influence of ideologically aligned politicians appears to be waning. For example, on the issue of constitutional revision where Abe had put his heart was not successful in his long-standing ambition of amending Article 9 of the Constitution Abe expressed his “overwhelming sorrow”. As a consequence, the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces remains where it has been since its creation.
Even though the pro-revision forces retain an absolute majority in the Diet, the momentum toward constitutional change has sagged, as Kishida has set his priorities elsewhere as he hails from an anti-revisionist tradition within the LDP. Respecting the views of some members of the ruling party who hold Abe in high esteem, Kishida has made timid pledges at times to take up Abe’s unfulfilled dream of revising the Constitution. Probably, Kishida knows well that the road for amending Article 9 is too arduous and difficult to realise. Therefore, like Abe’s collective self-defence approach, Kishida is exploring other routes to realise the same goals.
Abe had something in him that enabled him to reach agreement whenever required with two opposition parties, Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Democratic Party of the People whenever needed. That was the best examples of the compromise between conservatives and liberals that Abe was able to achieve. Therefore the absence of a leader able to replace Abe and take the lead in the conservative camp weighs heavily on the future of Japanese politics. Viewing holistically, Abe’s influence remains intact as could be seen in Kishida’s policies though the thrust and emphasis are different.