Shinzo Abe’s Political Legacy and Its Inheritance

September 19, 2022

About the author:

Xiong Dayun, Specially Appointed Professor, Faculty of Law, Yamanashi Gakuin University




Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on July 8, 2022. While the nation is still in shock and dismay, observers are beginning to assess Abe’s political legacy and how it may shadow Japan’s political future.


The Kishida government has pledged to fully maintain Abe’s legacy and continue his political agenda. To this end, a state funeral is set on September 27, 2022 to maximize both public exposure and outpourings of public grief.


However, this decision has since met with public opposition. For example, on July 16, Asahi Shimbun selected several satirical poems for its senryu (a form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction) column. Roughly translated into English, one reads, “Why a state funeral? Is the country finished or what?”; another reads, “This is a country where dubious people are given state funerals.” According to an opinion poll by Kyodo News Service on July 30 and 31, 53.3% of the respondents were opposed to the state funeral, compared with 45.1% in favor. Moreover, opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, strongly rejected an Abe state funeral.


The backlash over a state funeral for Abe is due to polarized opinions on his political achievements and the legacy he left for Japan. Another important reason is that Abe’s assassination was not politically motivated; he was no martyr for social justice. Instead, there is growing evidence to prove that Abe was shot dead because the suspect’s mother went hopelessly bankrupt from the all-out donations she made to the Unification Church, a cult that Abe and his family had long-protected from prosecution. After trying in vain to seek justice from authorities, the resentful son shot and killed Abe in desperate hope of alerting society to the cult’s activities.


Why did Abe attempt to break away from the post-war regime?


In a little over a decade, Abe’s legacy, which spans the political, economic, and diplomatic realms, altered Japan beyond all recognition.


According to Professor Hyo Shindo of Tsuru University, Abe’s unfinished agenda was to “break away from the post-war regime system and build a modern-day Japanese empire.” For Chiyako Sato, an editorial writer at the Mainichi Shimbun, Abe’s agenda was to “break away from the post-war regime and restore a strong Japan.” 


According to Abe, the “post-war regime” was “a basic framework, under the Constitution, which involved administration, education, economy, employment, central-local relations, foreign affairs, security, and other socio-political relationships.” In Chiyako Sato’s opinion, the post-war regime amounted to a political, economic, and social system “light on arms and heavy on the economy.”

In Sato’s view, Abe’s political tenets and policies were rooted in his departure from the post-war regime. According to a study by the leading Japanese scholar Kazuhiko Togo, at the core of Abe’s aspiration to break away from the post-war regime lay his belief that such a framework, established by the U.S. during the occupation period, was intended to inhibit Japan’s ability to once again become a great power. Thus, Japan could only become truly independent by rebuilding the symbolic and concrete framework of the national constitution. Abe argued that breaking away from the post-war regime should be at the top of Japan’s agenda.


Hyo Shindo has claimed that such a historic break would occur in two phases. The first was to change the rules, such as lifetime employment, social security, and local autonomy, established by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, which had built Japan into a neo-liberal economy and society. The second and most fundamental phase was to alter the national framework born of the Potsdam Declaration and the Japanese Constitution and promote the global expansion of the Japan-U.S. military alliance based on their bilateral security treaty. The aim was to allow the Japanese military to exercise its power at home and abroad freely - as long as it stayed in good graces of the U.S. - and thus, do a better job protecting the global financial interests of Japanese multinational companies.


Abe’s main political legacy


Among the many tangible and intangible pieces of Abe’s political legacy of departure from the post-war regime and restoration of Japan’s historic glory, the most significant was his historical revisionism, which provided an ideological basis for revising the Constitution and retooling the Legislation for Peace and Security.


What is Abe’s historical revisionism and its impact on Japanese society? 


Japan’s disastrous wars of aggression caused appalling hardship for Asia and the world at large. In the wake of Japan’s defeat, peoples of the afflicted countries, along with peace-loving, democratic forces in Japan, have called on the Japanese government to reflect on its wartime atrocities and to apologize sincerely. In 2005, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama responded to this call by publicly acknowledging and apologizing for Japan’s aggression for the first time.


Abe, however, remained opposed to the Murayama administration’s initiative. On April 23, 2013, during a Q&A session in the Diet, Abe disputed the references to “aggression” in the Murayama Statement, arguing that the definition of what constitutes aggression had yet to be established in academia or in the international community and therefore varied from country to country. Abe’s argument was nothing if not an open denial of Japan’s history of aggression. Furthermore, Abe’s speech marking the 70 years since the end of WWII ventured that future generations of Japanese should not continue to apologize for past mistakes. However, even in the U.S., Abe’s argument was criticized, with many leading newspapers and intellectuals accusing Abe of “historical revisionism.”


Significantly, the continued implementation of policies derived from Abe’s historical revisionism is transforming Japan into a right-leaning society. The Japanese political scientist, Koichi Nakano, wrote that from a socioeconomic viewpoint, these policies worsen inequality; politically speaking, there are increasing restrictions on individual rights and freedoms in various aspects; and in terms of diplomatic security, Japan might now be dragged into warfare in any part of the world.


Moreover, political conditions in Japan remain ripe for constitutional revision, largely because Abe ceaselessly promoted the idea.


Shinzo Abe always made the cause of constitutional revision a necessity in his drive to build Japan into “a beautiful country.” A crucial goal was to ensure that Japan’s Constitution recognized the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and allowed Japanese troops to fight overseas. To that end, the Abe-led LDP put forward a four-point revision proposal with the constitutional recognition of the SDF as the core element. In 2019, the LDP further built on revisionist momentum by including the proposal as one of its key election pledges for the Upper House elections.


Constitutional revision requires approval from two-thirds of Diet members, as well as public support from a majority in a national referendum. Because of Abe’s relentless push, both hurdles were cleared. In both houses of the Diet, the LDP and other pro-revision parties gained far more seats than the required two-thirds. According to an opinion poll by Asahi Shimbun in May 2022, 56% of respondents backed changes to the constitution, and 57% argued that pro-revision parties should hold more than two-thirds of the Diet seats.


Last but not least, Abe retooled the Legislation for Peace and Security.


Catalyzed by Abe, on September 19, 2015, the Diet passed two bills proposed by the cabinet and overhauled 20 existing laws, including the Self-Defense Forces Law, which significantly changed Japan’s security system.


First, Japan is turning away from its exclusively defense-oriented policy in favor of an active or all-weather defense so that the SDF could fight alongside the U.S. and other foreign militaries in any part of the world. Second, Japan has defined the situations that affect its peace and security to include “armed attack situations,” “survival-threatening situations,” and “critical impact situations,” which together give the SDF an increased variety of subjective pretexts to engage in warfare. Third, in its right to “protect overseas Japanese nationals,” the SDF would assimilate the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Fourth, expanding the scope for the use of weapons by SDF personnel paves the way for the complete lifting of the constitutional restrictions on Japan’s use of force.


In short, the security legislation Abe reinvented marks a clean break from the exclusively defense-oriented policy that had been in effect for more than 60 years. It has laid a domestic legal foundation for Japan, as a henchman of the U.S., to seek hegemony in (East) Asia under the cover of exercising the right to collective self-defense.


Some Japanese scholars believe that Japan’s new security legislation constitutes the most significant part of the legacy Abe left for the nation.


How will Abe’s legacy be inherited and can its value be maintained or increased?


Abe was shot twice and died without providing a succession plan. Although it is too early to say what the future has in store for Abe’s political legacy, the author believes Japan’s ruling camp will take the following stance:


Overall, Japan’s ruling camp will adopt Abe’s ideological system of historical revisionism and maintain his strategy of disassembling the post-war regime and restoring Japan to its former glory.


First, the ruling camp will build on Abe’s legacy and turn constitutional revision into reality. As mentioned earlier, the conditions are ripe, and the revision will undoubtedly pass.


Second, the ruling camp will leave no stone unturned to obtain advantages from the new security system. Predictably, the current security legislation thus will be further revised in a more aggressive direction. Japanese politicians are clamoring to build strike capability and raise the military budget from the current level of about 1% of GDP to 2%. It is only a matter of time before both are written into national policy. However, the first dimension of altering the post-war regime will, in all likelihood, be subject to adjustment because of its huge negative impact on Japanese society. Prime Minister Kishida’s “new capitalism” is the most prominent signal.


Third, the ruling camp will pursue Abe’s diplomacy of values and “overlooking the globe” diplomacy with even greater fervor. By spearheading the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Japan, US, India, Australia), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion to Asia, and other U.S.-led China containment strategies, Japan dreams of piggybacking its way to a modern-day empire. Currently, Japan is playing off the U.S. against China and Russia. It voluntarily acts as America’s hatchet man by helping the latter maintain its international position as the dominant hegemonic power. During China’s military exercises in response to the ongoing Taiwan Strait crisis, Japan went out of its way to smear and provoke China and conduct war games to explore the possibility of intervention by the SDF. “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.” Abe’s words laid bare Japan’s lack of scruples when dealing with China-Japan relations, regardless of the quest for unification shared across the strait. Ultimately, Japan’s saber-rattling is intended to justify Abe’s new security strategy.


Japan’s continued pursuit of historical revisionism is indeed to be met with both vigilance and criticism from countries worldwide, especially the victims of Japanese aggression. Domestically, the full inheritance of the new security paradigm of Abe’s legacy is sure to trigger significant protest from peace-loving Japanese citizens and intellectuals.


However, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Abe’s successors will successfully obtain more tremendous advantage from Abe’s new security system and build a modern-day Japanese empire by fighting America’s wars around the world.


First, Japan is at a political crossroads. Abe’s sudden death left a power vacuum within the LDP, with factions reshuffling and redistributing powers. A fresh round of crippling infighting and power struggles are significant obstacles for the ruling party in the future.


Second, Abe’s legacy is, at best, a mixed blessing. Social problems and class conflict erupted in Japan under Abe. Without proper handling, power may change hands.


Third, the Japan-U.S. alliance is a marriage of convenience. Ever an opportunist, Japan is going the extra mile to act as a vanguard against China and Russia. Once it gains the trust of the U.S., Japan will unscrupulously break the existing taboos in defiance of the peace-loving world. Japan’s ultimate goal, however, is to cut its American apron strings and become truly independent. By then, the contradiction between Japan and the U.S. will have come to the surface.


Fourth, Japan’s strategic reliance on the U.S. is not a single wager. The evolution of international relations does not depend on the will of a single country, and the time when the U.S. can act unilaterally is coming to a close. If Japan blindly acts as America’s hatchet man, its Asian neighbors will almost certainly resist. When push comes to shove, the U.S. may simply walk away from Asia, leaving Japan in an awkward strategic position.




In sum, if Japan’s ruling camp inherits Abe’s political legacy without discrimination and obtains advantage, by fair means or foul, the political future of Japan remains uncertain. A proverb in Chinese is that a distant relative may not be as helpful as a near neighbor. Since China has always been, and will always be, a neighbor of Japan, the hope remains that Japan will learn from its past lessons and steer clear of the path of Datsu-A Ron, i.e. leaving Asia and entering Europe. In other words, Japan should not tempt providence by aligning with thieves and bullying its good neighbors.



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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