In January 2007, only a few months after he was elected, at 52, as Japan’s youngest prime minister of the postwar era, Shinzo Abe delivered a speech outlining his policy priorities after the opening ceremony of the 166th session of Japan’s Diet, the country’s parliamentary body.
Most of the speech was a mundane laundry list of proposals, but one line proved especially revealing about the character of the man. “My mission is none other than to draw a new vision of a nation that can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years,” Mr. Abe said.
I have regularly returned to this line — over the course of my writing about the former prime minister and as I reflected on his assassination on Friday — because it provided insight into what animated Mr. Abe as a politician. He was not a politician who was content to think small. His family hailed from Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan. The area was home to some of the principal architects of the Meiji Restoration — the return of the emperor as a figurehead in 1867 and subsequent construction of a modern Japanese state by reformist elements. Mr. Abe admired those leaders.
The leaders of Meiji Japan were not just building a modern state for its own sake. They were building a state that would be able to fend off and eventually compete with the European and American empires that were busy carving up Asia. As Mr. Abe’s talk of building a nation to “withstand the raging waves” suggests, he shared this fundamental sensibility.
He was a nationalist; he saw his country as engaged in a fierce competition among nations and believed that a politician’s duty, first and foremost, was to ensure the security and prosperity of his people. But he was also a statist, in that he believed that it was ultimately the responsibility of the state and its leaders to perform this duty. This is why debates about whether Mr. Abe was an ideologue or a realist miss the point. Over the course of his career, he repeatedly acted in ways that he thought would strengthen the Japanese state in its efforts to protect the Japanese people in a dangerous world.
Decisions that may have looked ideological — for example, efforts by Mr. Abe and other conservative politicians to introduce Japan’s version of patriotic education to schools and replace textbooks that taught what he considered “masochistic” history that discussed wartime atrocities — were fundamentally about strengthening the state (whether or not replacing textbooks would achieve this goal). His critics worried that the changes would undercut a core tenet of the textbooks that they believed help retain Japan’s peaceful existence. But he believed that a strong state needed to raise citizens who felt proud of their country and were willing to sacrifice on its behalf, even by taking up arms if necessary.
His statism was easier to see in other areas. He used the slogan “Escaping the postwar regime” during his first premiership, and it continued to characterize his vision in his second premiership — a self-conscious effort to uproot institutions introduced during and immediately after the U.S. occupation of Japan. He believed they constrained the country’s ability to defend itself, most notably the postwar Constitution and Article 9, its war-renouncing peace clause.
During his second term, he ordered his government to reinterpret Article 9 to permit Japan’s exercise of its right to collective self-defense, which would enable its armed forces to come to the aid of an ally in certain circumstances. Later he proposed amendments to the Constitution, including to Article 9, and pledged that he would ratify them by 2020; this effort, however, failed.
In place of a country repentant about its past, he wanted to build a stronger, top-down government that would feature a robust national security establishment similar to what exists in the United States and Japan’s other peer countries. This project became even more pressing as North Korea developed a nuclear arsenal and China’s military grew along with its economic might. While he was not averse to maintaining stable political and economic ties with Beijing, he never lost sight of the dangers China could pose to Japan’s national security.
Mr. Abe’s embrace of what became known as Abenomics — his three-pronged program of monetary stimulus, fiscal stimulus and industrial policies to encourage new high-tech growth sectors and a more sustainable labor force — similarly reflected his statism. He belatedly came to appreciate that to compete with other nations, Japan had to end its long-term economic stagnation.
His vision of a stronger Japanese state was not universally popular; his zeal for changes to strengthen the state, particularly its national security establishment, often attracted sizable protests. Older Japanese remembered the wartime state all too well and were uncomfortable with rebuilding Japan’s military power, but young Japanese, too, mobilized at times to oppose his moves.
Nevertheless, at the time of his death, it appeared that the Japanese people might finally be coming around to Mr. Abe’s vision. Thanks in part to Russia’s war in Ukraine, a robust majority appeared to support higher levels of military spending.
Even Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, a self-proclaimed liberal dove, has indicated his support for higher military spending to boost the capabilities of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, a sign of just how much Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party came to share his vision during his 30-year career.
While his judgment was not always sound and his actions took on authoritarian tinges, I believe Mr. Abe nevertheless left Japan with a state more able to articulate and execute the policies needed to “withstand the raging waves” of the 21st century.
After waging what was at times a lonely fight, Mr. Abe died just as the Japanese people were possibly coming to appreciate his vision of a strong state capable of defending the nation in a dangerous world.
Tobias Harris (@observingjapan) is the author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan.” He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees the national security and international policy team’s work on Asia.
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