The Abe Doctrine - Nationalist or Realist?

September 20, 2022

About the author:

Zhang Haozhe, M.A. candidate, Johns Hopkins University; TI Youth Observer 


Clouds were hanging low in the sky. A 68-year old man faced the crowds who came to greet him on this gloomy day. He waved his hand and prepared for a speech. He was nonchalant because he was used to being surrounded. For so long, he was eulogized as one of the best politicians in Japan or even worldwide. He received reverence for his progressive economic and security reforms. He had just resigned from a crucial position, but everyone knew he would be the lighthouse of this nation for many years in the future. However, all of these came to nothing with three dull gunshots. The murderer was only five steps away, and bullets came out of the pistol to penetrate the chest of the elderly man. A few hours later, the political beacon of Japan expired. 


The man’s name was Hirobumi Ito, the first Prime Minister of Japan. One hundred years later, another Japanese political figure who shared many similarities with Ito, met the same fate. Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, a man who, like Ito, had shaped Japan for decades and dramatically transformed its preferences, was assassinated. History is rife with such circular fates.


For his critics, Shinzo Abe personified the rising tide of Japanese nationalism. He represented tired conservative ideas derived from the ruins of Japan’s past imperial ambitions.1 As Prime Minister, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, rewrote history textbooks, catalyzed the reinterpretation of Article 9, and declined to apologize for Japan’s atrocious WWII crimes.2 Abe did not disguise his nationalist ideologies. In 2013, he initiated the first meeting with members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the slogan “Take Back Japan - Nippon wo torimodosu.” During Abe’s tenure as prime minister, his foreign policies reaffirmed his persistent nationalist attitudes. Territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia were met with confrontational gestures. Professor Emeritus of Washington University, Kenneth Pyle, has argued that Abe’s rhetoric mirrored many Japanese right-wing political figures such as Yasuhiro Nakasone. Abe’s connection to the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) has also been cited as evidence of his nationalism ideology.3 Dr. Junki Nakahara at American University developed a discursive discourse analysis of the Abe administration's official statements, speeches, and press, to demonstrate the nationalism inherent within the so-called “Abe Doctrine.”4 Moreover, right-wing politicians have never hidden their praise for Abe. For example, in 2003, one of the most famous Japanese extreme right-wing activists, Kanji Nishio, said, “Mr. Abe is the sole member of the administration that supports our efforts for history-textbook revisionism.”5


While the public, many scholars, and even Japanese nationalists generally believe in Abe's nationalist political position, his foreign policies were not necessarily nationalist. A careful assessment of Abe’s foreign policies, especially during his second term as Prime Minister reveals that nationalism was not necessarily a de facto guiding principle of policymaking.


Nationalism vs. Realism - Which One Is the Real Color of Abe?


A representative example that Abe departed from nationalism in developing Japan’s foreign policy was his effort to consolidate the Japan-U.S. alliance. While orthodox Japanese nationalist narratives called for anti-Americanism solidarity and figurative nationalists, such as Shintaro Ishihara and Susumu Nishibe, constantly advocated for the idea,6 Abe did the exact opposite. He followed the tenets of the Yoshida Doctrine - a diplomatic instruction that nationalists never appreciated - to approbate the security commitment to Japan from Washington while seeking more in-depth cooperation, even at the cost of Japan’s sovereignty. Abe portrayed Japan-U.S. relations and the alliance as the most important bilateral relationship in the world. He described the Japan-U.S. alliance as “indispensable (fufaketsu)” and the “cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy (kaname).” Moreover, Abe said the consolidation of the Japan-U.S. alliance was the foundation of Japan’s peace and independence.7


Japan’s political and military dependency on the United States, which remains the source of its stagnation and incomplete sovereignty, negates nationalist sentiment. Abe’s acceptance of U.S.-imposed norms and principles in the Western Pacific and admission that its autocratic bilateral-based hub-and-spoke system was effective, exposes another dimension of the Abe Doctrine. Shinzo Abe demonstrated solid preferences for Japan’s national interests over nationalist appeals in foreign policy-making processes. For D. P. Envall, a leading scholar of Japanese politics, a major departure point for understanding the Abe Doctrine was how “Abe weighted deterrence over independence.”8


During his first prime ministerial term, Abe accelerated Japan’s projective capability “normalization” and proposed a “value-based diplomacy.” He then spared no effort in building the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) for so-called “Indo-Pacific stability,” established Japan's National Security Council (NSC) in 2013, and introduced a military legislation, which legitimized the Japan Self-Defense Force's participation in broader collective security operations, in 2015. By changing Japan's security instruction to a more active posture, Japan was making a more “proactive contribution to peace.”9 Together, Abe’s security-related initiatives can be viewed as spearheading nationalism and Japan’s militarist spirit.


The practical actions of Japan’s military reforms appear eclipsed by its high-profile and assertive multilateral diplomatic and security strategies. During Abe’s tenure, Japan’s defense spending increased by only 13%10 and is smaller than the accumulated inflation rate, in constant US dollars, from 2012 to 2020. While Abe initiated and participated in many regional “China-Containment” fraternities, in actuality he “adopted a less strident approach on China,” especially when compared to his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi.11


The inconsistency between Japan’s assertive diplomatic rhetoric and conservative behavior revealed the underlying principle of the Abe Doctrine - Japan’s traditional realism, and or pragmatism, but not nationalism. In other words, Abe was the heir of Yoshida and not of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi. Thus, the Abe Doctrine watershed for Japan’s foreign policy was not that nationalism replaced the old realism and pragmatism, but rather that Abe successfully modified the tradition of Japanese realism.12


Abe’s modification to the traditional realism of Japan can be seen in Japan’s relative power transition. As the world order restructured with unprecedented speed over the previous decade, Japan was alarmed to watch China’s astonishing economic and military rise. First, China's economy surpassed Japan’s, and then, in short order, doubled and tripled it in GDP terms. Moreover, China quickly surpassed Japan's naval power in both quantity and quality. Like other neighboring states, Japan quavered within the new and fragile international structure. The Yoshida Doctrine’s isolationism and entrapment-avoidance concepts were perceived to no longer satisfy Japan's security needs. Abe’s assessment of the geopolitical threat posed by China required Japan to seek a new security framework. 


Thus, Abe decided to maintain the necessary deterrence capability of Japan, to both contain the rising giant and obtain a renewed sense of security. Abe’s strategy was not to build Japan’s deterrence capability purely by an expansion of arms, which nationalists had eagerly expected, but through his understanding of “cooperative deterrence.” In 2014, Japan’s cabinet affirmed that “no country can secure its own peace only by itself.”13 Based on this understanding of national security, Abe chose to establish joint security frameworks and robust Japan-U.S. relations. As such, the Abe Doctrine retained consistency with Takuya Kubo and Hisahiko Okazaki’s idea of “military realism,” first introduced in the 1970s.14


In the approaching new era of bipolarity, endowments for maintaining Japan’s collective security camp and binding the country with the U.S. in security terms are being transformed. One consequence of the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army) modernization is the rising cost of conventional deterrence costs for the U.S. in the Western Pacific. Japan’s concern is not that it will be entrapped into an undesirable war by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, but that its U.S. ally may abandon it in the future. Accordingly, Japan’s accumulating fear of abandonment means that its doctrine of military realism must also be adjusted to reassure the U.S. of its reliability in joint security issues. However, rather than adopting a nationalist radical rearmament policy, Abe chose relatively moderate and frugal strategies to display continuing commitment to the alliance supported by aggressive diplomatic gestures, ongoing institutional reforms, and active participation in joint security organizations. Japan’s preference for a multiplicity of strategies highlights the realism and pragmatism that underpin the principles of the Abe Doctrine.




The Abe Doctrine, while ostensibly nationalistic, is both realistic and pragmatic. From the Japanese perspective, Abe’s foreign policies were both feasible and desirable. While this article is not a defense of Shinzo Abe or his career and policies, he has proven to be a dedicated right-wing politician motivated by a nostalgic nationalism that caused serious offense to the peoples of both China and Korea. Adding insult to injury, Abe calculatingly interfered in China’s domestic affairs via statements of affinity with Taipei. Though his policies did not constitute extreme nationalism, his enduring political and social influence in Japan’s future, as a figurative nationalist, is yet to be told. 


The assassination of Japan’s first Prime Minister, Hirobumi Ito, unleashed the nation’s extreme right-wing nationalists and eventually dragged the entirety of Eastern Asia into a calamity of Japanese imperial militarism. Whether the death of Shinzo Abe will propel Japan to repeat its past mistakes is unknown. However, if Shinzo Abe’s nationalist spirit remains his prime tangible legacy, then his unchaining control of Japan’s beast of nationalism also remains Eastern Asia’s greatest danger. One can only hope that the region’s present and future leaders practice sane self-restraint. If one cannot emulate Kakuei Tanaka, then one should at least emulate the better part of Shinzo Abe. International relations are not heroic epics for ambitious leaders, but rather, the sage construal of better lives for the countless ordinary peoples inhabiting planet Earth.



1. John Nilsson-Wright, “Shinzo Abe: Revisionist Nationalist or Pragmatic Realist?,” BBC News, August 28, 2020, sec. Asia,

2. Elias Groll, “Shinzo Abe Regrets but Declines to Apologize for Japan’s WWII Actions,” Foreign Policy, August 14, 2015,

3. Kenneth B Pyle, The Japanese Question: Power and Purpose in a New Era (Washington, Dc: Aei Press Published For The American Enterprise Institute, 1996)., 85.

4. Nakahara Junki, “Deconstructing Abe Shinzo’s ‘Take Back Japan’ Nationalism,” The Aisa Pacific Journal, December 15, 2021,

5. 幹二西尾, “小泉純一郎と安倍晋三--誰が本当の改革者か--「国家への忠誠心」なしに日本の大本は立て直せない,” Voice, no. 312 (December 1, 2003): 48–57,

6. H D P Envall, “The ‘Abe Doctrine’: Japan’s New Regional Realism,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, June 4, 2018,, 40.

7. “第166回国会における安倍内閣総理大臣施政方針演説,” (ウィキメディア財団, August 15, 2009),第166回国会における安倍内閣総理大臣施政方針演説.

8.H D P Envall, 41.

9.John Nilsson-Wright, 2020.

10. Ibid, 2020.

11. H D P Envall, 41.

12. Christopher W Hughes, Japan’s Foreign and Security Policy under the “Abe Doctrine”: New Dynamism or New Dead End? (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

13. “Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect Its People,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, July 1, 2014,

14. Mike Mochizuki, Japan’s Search for Strategy: The Security Policy Debate in the 1980s (Cambridge, Mass.: Program On U.S.-Japan Relations, Center For International Affairs, Harvard University, 1982)., 186.



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


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