Tobias Harris on Abe Shinzo’s Continuing Influence in Japan

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Tobias Harris on Abe Shinzo’s Continuing Influence in Japan

Over a year since his resignation, Abe’s “power is substantial,” as is his legacy.

Tobias Harris on Abe Shinzo’s Continuing Influence in Japan
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

In August 2020, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made the shock announcement that he was stepping down for health reasons. At the time, Abe had just set the record for Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, breaking a string of one-year premierships (including his own first stint in office, from 2006-07). We’re now 18 months – and two prime ministers – removed from his tenure, but Abe continues to exert political influence as the leader of a powerful faction of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He also continues to make public remarks offering policy suggestions – or prescriptions – for his successor, Kishida Fumio.

How did Abe’s eight-year premiership reshape Japan? And how much influence does he still wield in Japanese policymaking? The Diplomat interviewed Tobias Harris, a senior fellow at American Progress and the author of the first English-language biography of Abe, “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan,” about Abe’s legacy and impact on Japan in 2022.

We’re a year and a half into Japan’s post-Abe period. With the benefit of a little hindsight, what do you think was Abe’s biggest legacy for Japan? 

It seems increasingly clear that more than any particular policy achievement, Abe’s greatest legacy was a more substantial global leadership for Japan. Under Abe, Japan was more active in numerous domains, articulating new standards for the digital economy and infrastructure investment; joining TPP and then leading its revival after the U.S. withdrawal; deepening strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam, and other regional powers as well as extra-regional powers like the EU and the U.K.; building a quasi-alliance with Australia; and upgrading Japan’s own defense capabilities.

The upshot of these steps is that the U.S. and other partners now expect more from Japan’s leaders, which has clearly been a factor during the Ukraine crisis. Even before the invasion began, Tokyo faced considerable pressure to make meaningful contributions to the global effort to isolate Russia, even if it meant sacrificing a decade of outreach to Russia (one of Abe’s less-successful legacies).

On that note, one of Abe’s foreign policy pursuits was attempting to make progress on a peace treaty with Russia, and especially on their territorial dispute. Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and Kishida’s immediate move to join sanction efforts targeting Moscow – changed perceptions of Abe’s foreign policy legacy? 

The fact that Abe was able to devote so much energy to a diplomatic settlement with Russia is a great sign of how much power the prime minister was able to wield in foreign policy. Abe pursued this initiative even over the objections of some of his closest foreign policy advisers. There was no shortage of objections, particularly as it became clear that Russia would be happy to accept Japan’s economic concessions without shifting its position on the disposition of the disputed islands in the Kurils. While neither Suga nor Kishida – at least before the Ukraine crisis – had abandoned Abe’s Russia policy, neither shared Abe’s enthusiasm for personal diplomacy with Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hastened the end of a Russia policy that might otherwise have limped on, with little to show for it, for years to come.

There is little question that Abe’s diplomatic initiative failed, particularly given that the goal was ultimately strategic, to forge a friendship with Russia that would stabilize Japan’s northern flank and perhaps keep Russia and China from drawing together. While it was apparent during the peak of negotiations post-2016 that Abe’s approach was not working, the past several months have removed all doubt. What’s less clear is where Japan’s Russia policy goes next, now that relations are icier than they have been in decades.

Abe spoke numerous times throughout his career about revising the Japanese Constitution to give more flexibility to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Constitutional revision never happened, but other defense-related reforms did. How did Abe reshape the discussion on Japanese security policy? 

Despite the ruling coalition’s wielding supermajorities in both houses of the Diet – without which constitutional revision would be virtually impossible – Abe had no success moving even modest constitutional changes through the Diet and to a national referendum. No small part of the reason this didn’t happen was Abe himself: Whatever the public thought about the desirability of revising the constitution, polls consistently showed that there was deep skepticism about revision happening under Abe’s watch, likely a reaction to the zeal with which Abe has pursued revision throughout his career.

That said, he still managed to make meaningful changes to Japan’s security policy even without revising Article 9. He revised a decade of annual defense spending cuts; he reinterpreted the constitution to permit the exercise of collective self-defense in limited scenarios in 2014 and the passage of laws to allow the Self-Defense Forces to perform these new roles, despite significant public opposition; and he continued the SDF’s shift to a flexible, joint, mobile posture focused on the defense of Japan’s outlying southwestern islands.

Maybe even more importantly, I would argue that for better or worse his government made significant progress in building what I would call a Japanese national security state. As a result of widespread anti-militarism during the postwar period, Japan has lacked a national security state that looks and acts like those its peers. Under Abe, however, the Japanese government passed a state secrecy law to strengthen penalties for leaking designated state secrets. It created a national security council, supported by a secretariat, which moved substantial foreign and security policymaking initiative to the prime minister’s office. The prime minister’s office gained broader powers over senior administrative personnel decisions, and Abe – along with Yoshihide Suga, who was chief cabinet secretary for the duration of Abe’s second administration, fostered a cadre of national security officials who occupied key posts in the Kantei.

The Abe government relaxed restrictions on arms exports, aiming to bolster a domestic defense industry. Abe also challenged prevailing norms that separated prime ministers from uniformed personnel. There are other changes one could highlight, but these all added up to a significantly more top-down structure in foreign and defense policymaking.

Comments from Abe – for example, on Japan’s positioning in a Taiwan strait crisis, or suggesting Japan could host U.S. nuclear weapons – often make headlines. How much political influence does Abe still wield? Are his views and comments still having an impact on policymaking? 

I have a chapter in the forthcoming edited volume “Japan Decides 2021” on this very question. The short answer is that his power is substantial, both within the LDP as the leader of its largest faction and the party’s conservative bloc, and in the political system more broadly as a media-savvy figure with a substantial bully pulpit. As his comments on nuclear sharing show, his agenda-setting power is probably greater than Prime Minister Kishida’s. Abe has consistently shown an ability to raise issues that the prime minister and his cabinet must address, both in foreign policy and in economic policy. Freed of the responsibilities of office, Abe no longer has to carefully balance interests and ideals and can call vocally for policies even if they would be politically difficult for Kishida to realize.

That said, Abe’s power is for now mostly latent, since Kishida’s approval ratings are strong and the next LDP election is more than two years away. The real question is what would happen if and when Kishida’s popularity dips, since Kishida’s survival could depend on the willingness of Abe and his faction to back him (and, when his term as LDP leader ends, support his reelection instead of fielding a challenger). Still, Kishida has been careful to listen to Abe’s views, recognizing that an open break with the former prime minister could be costly.

Japan went through six prime ministers (including Abe himself) in the six years before Abe began his second stint in the post in 2012. Abe’s successor, Suga Yoshihide, also lasted just one year in the post. Do you expect a return to the “revolving door” of Japanese prime ministers?

I suspect that we won’t. For starters, Kishida appears poised to last for a good while in office. Once this year’s upper house elections are past, Kishida will have up to three years before he has to face voters again, and two years before his LDP leadership term ends. This gives him considerable freedom of action to rack up policy achievements, and, as time goes on, to call a snap election at a time that maximizes his chances of preserving the ruling coalition’s majority. And the LDP loves few things as much as a party leader who wins elections. Like Abe, Kishida will benefit from the weak and divided opposition, and a strong desire for political stability on the part of the public.

It increasingly appears that Abe’s premature resignation and Suga’s one-year tenure were aberrations – a function of the extraordinary political dynamics of the pandemic – rather than the beginning of a new trend. Of course, Kishida is not guaranteed to last. After all, he has the balancing act with Abe, a very uncertain global economic environment, and a worsening strategic environment to consider. Stuff can and will happen. But the lesson of Abe’s record-setting tenure is that the public’s desire for stability means that an LDP prime minister can withstand a lot without having to resign.