Shinzo Abe: Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

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Abe brought a measure of stability as prime minister from 2012 to 2020 (Getty)
Abe brought a measure of stability as prime minister from 2012 to 2020 (Getty)

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who sought to revive his country as an economic and military power that could confront China’s rising influence, has died aged 67 after being shot by a gunman.

The assassination, during a campaign event for party allies in Nara, near Osaka, left Japan stunned. The killing prompted an outpouring of tributes around the world for Abe, the scion of a prominent political family, whose role at the helm of Japan’s domestic politics and international affairs spanned nearly a generation. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has led Japan for all but four years since the mid-1950s.

Abe brought a measure of stability as prime minister from 2012 to 2020, after years of revolving-door leadership that complicated Japan’s critical alliances, including its trade and defence ties with Washington. Yet challenges – some self-imposed – gave the eight-year Abe era a sense of rough edges and unfulfilled aspirations.

Abe (pronounced AH-bay) took power as the country was still reeling from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed the Fukushima nuclear facility and left parts of the country a radioactive no-go zone. One of his first official visits outside Tokyo was a tour of the Fukushima site, wearing a mask and blue overalls.

He stepped down in September 2020 because of medical issues – chronic ulcerative colitis – during a pandemic that upended his economic vision and delayed until 2021 one of his crown jewels: bringing the Olympics back to Tokyo.

At the closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, Abe dressed as Super Mario of Nintendo fame to celebrate the preparations for the Tokyo Games. Abe did not attend the lockdown-style opening of those Summer Olympics, allowing his successor, Yoshihide Suga, to have centre stage.

Abe also struggled with many of his signature initiatives.

At the top were efforts to bring some of the Silicon Valley ethos of innovation and risk-taking into Japan’s tradition-laden economy, still one of the world’s largest but stuck in a slow-growth slumber for decades. At the same time, he pushed hard to expand Japan’s military capabilities in the face of the rising threat from China and a nuclear-armed North Korea, planning for new bases on islands and boosting defence spending.

But he could not find the political or public backing to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, which was written during the US occupation after the Second World War.

Abe asked for “forgiveness” that he was leaving office without managing to make the constitutional changes or reaching other goals, including bringing back the remaining Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea and settling territorial disputes with Russia over an island chain, known in Russia as the Kurils and in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Shinzo Abe (right) with the then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (centre) and vice-president Taku Yamazaki (left) in 2003 (AFP/Getty)
Shinzo Abe (right) with the then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (centre) and vice-president Taku Yamazaki (left) in 2003 (AFP/Getty)

“It is really with a very heavy heart that I am resigning without being able to attain those things,” said Abe.

Shinzo Abe was born in Tokyo on 21 September 1954, to a family deeply involved in Japan’s post-war politics and carrying the burden of connections to the former imperial rule and its militaristic expansionism.

His great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, held the previous record as longest-serving prime minister (from 1964 to 1972) and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work on nuclear nonproliferation. Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, held high-profile political and government posts for more than three decades, including trade minister and foreign minister in the 1980s, when he also sought to find a settlement with Russia over the disputed islands.

Abe was perhaps most strongly influenced by his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as a cabinet minister during the Second World War and as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, and also sought to revise Japan’s constitution to allow a more assertive military and diplomatic role. Kishi had been imprisoned by US forces as a potential war criminal after Japan’s surrender, but was later released as part of Washington’s “reverse course” policy to emphasise rebuilding Japan as a Cold War bulwark.

Abe appears during the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Getty)
Abe appears during the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Getty)

Abe was raised as Japan was on its stunning economic trajectory after the Second World War, on its way to the heady Japan Inc powerhouse years of the 1980s. At an early age, Abe appeared to be being groomed to take his place in the centre-right LDP.

He studied political science at Seikei University in Tokyo, graduating in 1977, and then spent a year at the University of Southern California to study political science and get a first-hand look at US culture and sensibilities.

In an address to a joint meeting of Congress in April 2015, Abe recounted the story of his landlord in California, Catherine Del Francia, describing her “out of this world” Italian cooking and the array of people who would visit. “They were so diverse,” Abe said. “I was amazed and said to myself, ‘America is an awesome country.’”

He returned to Japan for a position at Kobe Steel as it was expanding its international connections. In 1987, he married Akie Matsuzaki, the daughter of a former president of the confectionary giant Morinaga. The couple never had children.

In 1982, Abe served as executive assistant to his father, who was then foreign minister. He was first elected as a member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, in 1993 for the southwestern prefecture of Yamaguchi. He smashed open a barrel of sake to celebrate.

US president Donald Trump greets Abe as he arrives for talks in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2018 (AFP/Getty)
US president Donald Trump greets Abe as he arrives for talks in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2018 (AFP/Getty)

He steadily rose through the LDP ranks to become the party’s leader in 2005, putting him in line as a potential prime minister. That came in September 2006. It gave Abe a first chance to test his economic agenda, which became known as the “three arrows”: easier borrowing, increased government spending, and other economic changes aimed at revamping the economy to deal with issues such as an ageing population and an ossified bureaucracy.

Abe appeared to be at the apex of his political rise, but upheavals in his government – including allegations of doling out illegal farm subsidies – soon stole the limelight. The subsidies probe apparently led to the suicide of Abe’s agriculture minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka. Abe stepped down after just one year, citing medical issues, sending his party into disarray. It took five years for him to get back to the prime minister’s office.

Speaking during a press conference at the prime minister’s official residence in August 2020 (Getty)
Speaking during a press conference at the prime minister’s official residence in August 2020 (Getty)

Abe’s style was workmanlike, with occasional flashes of wry humour, and his inner circle was built mostly around technocrats and loyalists. In a relative sense, Abe’s leadership was designed for low drama to avoid the missteps of his first time as leader.

Still, there were troubles, led by perceptions of his harbouring nationalist sympathies. South Korea accused Abe of not fully acknowledging that troops had forced women into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation, despite a 2015 document that offered compensation. In 2013, Abe faced a sharp backlash after visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours, among others, those who were war criminals in the Second World War.

“It is natural that we should express our feelings of respect to the war dead who sacrificed their lives for the nation,” he said in December 2013. “But it is my thinking that we should avoid making [Yasukuni visits] political and diplomatic issues.”

In a speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, he appeared to suggest that Japan needed to move on from the shadow of the war. “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise,” he said in August 2015.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his mother, Yoko Abe, and his two brothers, Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s defence minister, and Hironobu Abe, a retired executive of Mitsubishi Corporation Packaging.

Abe took a special interest in building a rapport with the Oval Office, often using his love of golf as a way to affirm ties.

He was the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016 – even as many other US allies were keeping a distance. In 2013, Abe presented the then president Barack Obama with a Japanese-made putter, and recounted how his grandfather as prime minister had played golf with Dwight D Eisenhower after their first meeting in Washington in 1957.

Joe Biden, then the vice president, asked Abe whether Eisenhower or his grandfather had gained the better score.

“It's a state secret,” Abe replied.

Shinzo Abe, former prime minister of Japan, born 21 September 1954, died 8 July 2022

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