Japan’s Future in the Post-Abe Era

September 19, 2022

About the author:

Wang Jian, Senior Fellow, Taihe Institute; Researcher of the Chinese Academy of History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS); Professor, CASS 


About Shinzo Abe


On June 22nd, 2022, Japan announced the 26th House of Councillors election, kicking off the campaign for the triennial election. On July 8th, former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was assassinated while giving a campaign speech for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidates in the city of Nara. Shinzo Abe was 67, and his murder shocked both Japan and the world.


Shinzo Abe was born on September 21st, 1954, in a prominent political family. The son of Shintaro Abe, who served as Japan’s Foreign Minister (1982-1986), and grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a well-known right-wing politician and also a former prime minister (1957-1960), Shinzo Abe is the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. A staunch right-wing conservative and leader of the largest faction within the LDP, Abe would certainly have continued to exert considerable political clout well into the future if he had not been assassinated. 


Abe graduated from the Faculty of Law at Seikei University in 1977 and continued post-graduate studies at the University of Southern California in the U.S. Although indifferent to politics at first, Abe, as the heir to a political family, began working as a secretary to his father, the then-Foreign Minister in 1982. In 1993, he won his father’s seat in Yamaguchi Prefecture and was elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, becoming the youngest LDP National Diet member at that time. He then successively served as the Chief Cabinet Secretary and LDP Secretary-General, catapulting him into Japan’s political elite.


With the help of LDP power brokers and right-wing conservatives, Abe won the LDP’s presidential election in September 2006 and became the first Japanese Prime Minister born after World War II. However, he stepped down in disgrace after less than a year in office due to party numerous scandals and his support for some unpopular causes. Five years later, in September of 2012, Abe was re-elected as LDP President and became Prime Minister in December, ushering in the Abe era that lasted seven years and eight months.


In August 2020, due to a flare-up of chronic ulcerative colitis, Abe resigned while Japan was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn. After a short recuperation, he returned to politics and became the head of the largest faction of LDP (Seiwa Policy Research Council) in November 2021 and began to re-exert his political influence on Japanese politics.


All in all, Abe’s record-long rule and an enormous influence on Japan’s right-wing conservatives have left significant yet still vague legacies on this country’s contemporary politics. Abe’s representation of the right-wing conservative interpretation of Japan’s national development and perspective on world order was exercised via the LDP’s power in political mobilization and has left an indelible imprint on the future of Japanese politics.


The Abe Era Driven by Right-Wing Conservatives


Abe, who led the LDP to victory in six consecutive parliamentary elections through his deft manipulation of superior political resources, not only managed the feat of being Japan’s long-serving Prime Minister but also had a period named after him, i.e., “the Abe era.” The biggest supporter of Abe was the Nippon Kaigi (NK, the Japan Conference), the largest right-wing organization in Japan. NK was established in May 1997 by merging two large conservative groups: Nihon wo Mamoru Kokumin Kaigi (National Conference to Protect Japan) and Nihon wo Mamoru Kai (Association to Protect Japan). Nowadays, it has more than 38,000 members and headquarters in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures, with a total of 240 local branches.


Fifteen of the 19 members in the Abe Cabinet were members of NK and its affiliated organizations, such as the Parliamentary League of Japan Conference, including Abe himself, then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taso Aso, and then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, as well as several female Cabinet members such as the Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Indeed, the Abe Cabinet was a veritable right-wing NK cabinet.


NK enjoys a powerful status both within the Japanese government and the public. However, this bizarre political phenomenon, which draws its membership from all walks of life, was criticized by Japanese scholar Jin Igarashi. He argued that “rather than saying the Japan Conference, the NK has been manipulating the cabinet behind the scenes, the two have become integrated.”


On December 26th, 2013, Abe, urged on by the NK, visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as Prime Minister. Abe’s visit to the war-linked shrine, accompanied by frequent statements supporting far-right politics, was a public sign of his commitment to right-wing conservatives, and was repeated several times following his resignation. Abe had subtly instilled his right-wing political ideology into the national mindset, which was undergoing rapid and profound changes as the right-wing conservatives reinforced their policy positions to steer the nation rightward and make Japan “strong again.” In retrospect, Abe’s conservative views and policies have remarkable and deleterious impacts on Japan’s politics and society, which may continue long into the future.


Japan’s national security strategy turned sharply rightward in the Abe era. As a crucial participant in the US Indo-Pacific strategy, the country introduced its first National Security Strategy in 2013 and also established the National Security Council (NSC). In 2014, the Cabinet partially lifted the ban on collective self-defense and set out the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology. In the following year, Japan introduced a new security law. Abe and his fellow conservatives sought to break the post-war system to achieve Japan’s “defense autonomy.” They were trying their best to break the shackles of Japan’s pacifist constitution for the acceleration of Japan’s military development.


Abe advocated the concepts of “overlooking the globe” diplomacy, “Proactive Pacifism,” and “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” in an attempt to augment Japan’s “political power.” After leaving office, Abe repeatedly made erroneous Taiwan-related remarks, including the notorious “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency,” which had a severe and negative impact on Sino-Japanese relations.


Abe’s Insistence on Constitutional Amendment


The LDP has been advocating a fundamental revision of Japan’s constitution since its founding in 1955. Right-wing conservatives consider the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan by the U.S. after WWII as a “great shame” that had robbed the nation of sovereignty and created a major stumbling block to Japan’s normalization as a sovereign state. As such, the right-wing conservatives selected Abe, who had inherited his political DNA from the right-wing politician Nobusuke Kishi, as the political princeling who could both promote and implement their long-sought amendments to strip the constitution of pacifist articles and clauses.


Thus, when Abe first became Prime Minister in 2006, he articulated his commitment to “getting rid of the post-war system,” and “normalizing Japan,” and prioritized constitutional amendment on his administration’s policy agenda. Abe not only developed Japan’s nativist constitutional amendment theory but also put it into practice. On May 3rd, 2017, on the 70th anniversary of the pacifist constitution, Abe pledged to implement a new constitution in 2020, the year Tokyo would host the Olympic Games. However, Abe failed to honor his pledge due to the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 and other factors.


His sudden death has undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow to Japan’s right-wing conservatives. But Abe’s supporters may accelerate the process of constitutional amendment under the banner of his “political legacy.” The ruling LDP and its coalition partner Komeito have obtained stable majorities in both houses of parliament. With support from both Komeito and the constitutional revisionists in opposition parties, the numbers voting “aye” has reached the threshold needed for starting the constitutional amendment. How the Kishida Cabinet will implement the constitutional amendment is an important political issue in the post-Abe era.


The Merits and Demerits of Abenomics and Its Continuation


In the 1990s, the Japanese economy suffered a prolonged recession following the stupendous bursting of its post-1985 Plaza Accord asset bubble. To extricate Japan from its economic predicament, Abe began implementing “Abenomics” after forming his second cabinet in 2012. Abenomics was an effort to interrupt Japan’s vicious cycle of deflation and spur economic growth with the “three arrows” policy, i.e., monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms.


At first glance, Abenomics appeared effective in promoting Japan’s socio-economic recovery and prosperity. However, it failed to resolve the nation’s structural predicament fundamentally. While Abenomics gifted enormous benefits to large enterprises, few benefits were accrued by the general public. Instead of tackling the root cause of Japan’s economic stagnation, it aggravated social stratification and worsened wealth inequality. Objectively, Japan’s economic plight, reflected in the failure of Abenomics, is a microcosm of a common challenge for today’s global economy.


Shinzo Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga, was replaced after 12 months in office by current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who quickly launched the high-profile “New Capitalism” policy. New Capitalism aimed to create a “virtuous cycle of growth and distribution,” which would both replace and redress the flaws in Abenomics. However, New Capitalism was seen by Abe and his business supporters as an attempt to repudiate Abe’s economic legacy and was harshly criticized and resisted. Kishida also proposed an economic security bill designed to mitigate perceived risks from China. Kishida’s policies, however, have only added uncertainties to Japan’s economic recovery in the post-Abe era. Therefore, whether Abenomics can be kept alive as an essential part of Abe’s political legacy will remain under global scrutiny.



Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the August issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the August issue, please click here:





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