He was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and is considered the architect of Japanese economic and foreign policy over the past few decades – on Friday, an assassin fired shots at Shinzo Abe during an election campaign speech, and the 67-year-old died of his injuries a few hours later. The suspected shooter, a former Marine, was arrested.
Abe served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and from 2012 to 2020, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Japan. The right-wing conservative was considered a shrewd strategist and shaped the country like no other politician.
Domestically, he campaigned for ambitious economic reforms, and externally, he had the pacifist post-war constitution revised in order to give Japan greater military weight in the world.
Abe came from the third generation of a political dynasty, studied political science in Japan and the USA and entered politics in 1982. At the beginning of his first government mandate, Abe was the youngest prime minister of Japan at 52 years of age. He stood for change and new beginnings – but at the same time embodied the elitist, conservative attitude of his family.
His first term ended after just one year with an abrupt resignation following an electoral defeat by his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Only later did it become known that Abe had been diagnosed with a serious intestinal disease and that this was the reason for his resignation.
After months of treatment, Abe recovered and ran again: in 2012 he was back in office, where he would remain for eight years – a rarity in Japan, where prime ministers sometimes change every year.
And Abe had a plan for the country, which had just been badly hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster: He wanted to boost the economy that had been stagnant for two decades, restructure the budget – including by increasing sales tax – and increase the birth rate.
His economic reforms, known abroad as “Abenomics”, achieved partial success, but structural problems remained, and Japan slipped into recession even before the corona pandemic. During the pandemic, Abe’s approval ratings plummeted to the lowest of his tenure, and he resigned shortly thereafter – the disease had returned.
On the international stage, Abe took a hard line against North Korea – North Korea fired test missiles that flew over Japan. At the same time, he tried to play a mediating role in the conflict between the United States and Iran.
He maintained reasonably intact relationships with Donald Trump, with whom he shared a passion for golf. Abe also maintained contacts with Russia in the hope of resolving the dispute over the southern Kuril Islands, which were occupied by the Soviet Union during World War II and never returned to Japan – to no avail, the conflict is still unresolved.
Some laws passed under Abe, such as a law protecting state secrets and a law allowing Japan greater military engagements abroad, provoked resentment in Japan and even led to large demonstrations, which are otherwise rare in the country.
Although he denied them, allegations of favoritism also regularly bothered Abe. The fact that he was able to stay in power for so long was probably also due to the lack of a rival in his own LPD party and the weak opposition.