In 1944, Shintaro Abe finished his graduation and joined a naval aviation school with the hope of becoming a kamikaze pilot. But before he could complete his training, Japan had lost the war to the US.
In the next few years, Shintaro pursued law at Tokyo University, tried his hand in journalism, got married to the daughter of a prominent politician, and gradually started walking the corridors of power in Tokyo.
File photo of Shintaro Abe.
The coming decades would see Shintaro grow in stature in Japanese politics. He’d work closely with his father-in-law, Nobusuke Kishi, who became Prime Minister of Japan in 1957.
Shintaro would go on to become Japan’s foreign minister in 1982 and was tipped to be the prime minister of Japan at some point in the future. However, destiny had other plans. Shintaro died in 1991 of heart failure (there were murmurs he had cancer), leaving behind his wife and two sons, Hironobu and Shinzo.
File photo of Nobusuke Kishi.
While Hironobu chose the path to become an entrepreneur, Shinzo carried his father’s legacy forward by joining politics and eventually achieved what his father couldn’t and became Prime Minister of Japan. With his maternal grandfather, a former prime minister, and his father a seasoned politician, Shinzo had inherited a strong family lineage in Japanese politics.
He was first elected to Parliament in 1993 on his father’s seat, who had passed away a couple of years earlier. In 2000, Shinzo Abe became the deputy chief secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party. He travelled with the then Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to North Korea in a bid to negotiate the release of Japanese citizens abducted by Kim Jong Il’s regime.
Abe holds the record of being the longest-serving Japanese Prime Minister. He served as Prime Minister of Japan from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020. He was victorious in six electoral contests since 2012.
Abe will be remembered for two key reform agendas which he pursued during his tenure. They were: a) restoring Japan’s militarism; and b) reviving the country’s slowing economy through policies that became popular as ‘Aebonomics’.
A conservative, Abe was unapologetic about Japan’s war history and wanted to revise a pacifist clause in the country’s constitution. But his efforts to build a more muscular military were met with opposition from the Japanese population, who hit the streets in 2015. They protested the legislation which allowed Japanese forces to fight alongside allies in overseas combat missions.
Abe failed to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, imposed by the US after World War II, which renounced war and the right to have armed forces. But he did achieve a fair deal. He established Japan’s National Security Council (NSC) in 2013 and also passed the State Secrecy Law in 2014. He was also able to increase Japan’s defence budget and acquire F-35 fighter aircraft and Izumo-class helicopter-equipped destroyers.
Abe also led Japan’s recovery from the tragic earthquake and tsunami in 2011, which killed about 20,000 people and led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. But Abe’s nationalist position often invited international criticism. In 2013, he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine (a site with links to Japan’s war atrocities), causing an uproar in China and South Korea.
On the economic front, ‘Abenomics’ became a buzzword under which the Abe government unleashed a loose monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and structural economic reforms. The aim was to add a spark to the economic engine which had lied stagnant for two decades. Beyond reducing corporate taxes, an impetus was given to expand an ageing workforce with greater participation of women and immigrants.
On matters related to international relations, Abe is credited with keeping close ties with Donald Trump, who maintained a hawkish and transactional approach with US allies. Abe also maintained strong ties with India, and along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, upgraded the bilateral relationship to ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’.
During Abe’s tenure, India and Japan signed the civil nuclear pact in 2016. But his biggest contribution is the Quad. He was the first to initiate the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue back in 2007, which brought together Australia, India, Japan, and the US on one platform against the backdrop of a growing Chinese threat.
Australia withdrew in 2008 and Quad ceased to exist, but was revived almost ten years later in 2017. Again, Abe’s contribution was critical to bringing the four nations together. India acknowledged Abe’s contribution to the ties between the two nations with the second-highest civilian honour—Padma Vibhushan in 2021. This was about a year after he had resigned.
Abe resigned as Prime Minister of Japan in September 2020, citing health issues. Abe’s popularity was believed to be at an all-time low when he hung the boot. Japan had entered into a recession and was struggling to battle the Covid pandemic. In the last couple of years, he had continued to play an influential role in Japanese politics until his life was brought to an abrupt end.
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