Shinzo Abe is Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. His place in the history books is assured. But what about his legacy? That’s a more controversial question and the subject of “The Iconoclast” by Tobias Harris. A senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, D.C., Harris is an expert on Japanese politics and a gifted storyteller. “The Iconoclast” is a definitive, must-read biography of Abe, and will be the standard English-language work on his life and times for years to come.
In this broad, sweeping narrative, Harris explores the impact Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, had on the development of his political philosophy, one that is focused on the idea of a militarily powerful, independent, less apologetic nation centered around the imperial household.
When Abe first became prime minister in 2006, he was the leader of a postwar generation of conservative Liberal Democratic Party members who wanted a strong military alliance with the United States, but had revisionist historical views that created anger and tensions with China and South Korea. He also held conservative, right-wing views of Japanese society that fueled anger and concerns among many members of the public.
But it was his earlier support of families whose loved ones had been abducted by North Korea during the Cold War era that paved the way to becoming prime minister. Abe’s initial championing of the abductee cause came at a time when Japanese politicians and bureaucrats were uninterested in pursuing it or had trouble believing it.
At a September 2002 meeting in Pyongyang, which Abe attended, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shocked Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the world by admitting that North Korea had, in fact, kidnapped Japanese nationals, a few of whom would be returned to Japan.
“The drama in Pyongyang and the fate of the surviving abductees and their families transformed Abe. He was no longer just a junior lawmaker… trying to raise awareness of a secondary political issue. Now, he was the courageous activist who had fought the indifference of Japan’s establishment from within the halls of government,” Harris writes.
But his popularity over the abduction issues wasn’t enough.
Abe’s first round as prime minister ended after a year due to his lack of political experience and talking too much about ideology. In the popular phrase of the day, Harris notes Abe failed to “read the wind” after various scandals, including one over pension funds.
By 2012, however, Abe had learned his lesson: It really was the economy, stupid. Harris recounts how Abe came back from the political wilderness by listening to economic experts, and then, after becoming prime minister again in December 2012, launched the three arrows of Abenomics (a bold monetary policy, a flexible fiscal policy, and a growth strategy to draw out private investment).
Domestically, Abe strengthened the power of the prime minister’s office through the creation of the 2014 Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs. This, Harris rightly notes, was likely his most important reform. It gave politicians control over personnel appointments of the nation’s top bureaucrats, who were now dependent on the prime minister rather than their bureaucratic colleagues, for promotions.
At the same time, Abe met strong opposition over his push for a state secrets law (officially the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets), which gave the bureaucrats more discretion over what to keep secret and, even more controversially, a set of new security bills that allowed Japan to aid its U.S. allies in previously unprecedented ways.
As 2020 began, getting the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution revised remained Abe’s ultimate goal, though public opinion still mostly disagreed with such an amendment, or at least revision while Abe was in charge. By then, the Abe administration was dogged by numerous scandals and was showing its age.
Still, Abe was no doubt looking ahead to next year with an eye toward presiding over the Tokyo Olympics this summer, shoring up his legacy and paving the way for a possible successor next year. Or, as some LDP members hinted, running for a fourth term.
Then, the coronavirus hit.
“The Covid-19 crisis has dramatically, and most likely irreparably, damaged Abe’s reputation as a strong leader determined to protect his country from threats to life and property,” Harris writes. “His efforts to spark a national renaissance — to fill the Japanese people with the belief that their country is capable of anything and to cement Japan’s place in the ranks of the great powers — already appeared tenuous and the long-term strength of the economy was in doubt before the crisis.”
How much longer Abe will still be around is now the subject of much speculation, given his waning popularity, questions about his health and increased efforts by his rivals with the LDP to raise their own profiles with an eye toward succeeding him. Regardless of when he leaves, Harris says, he still has one more thing he needs to do.
“There is no doubt the age of Abe is drawing to a close. The final task left for Abe will be to ensure a smooth transition to a new leader who can begin rebuilding anew, “ Harris says, building on Abe’s “pragmatic and risk-taking statesmanship.” One can debate the degree to which Abe was pragmatic or a risk-taking statesman. But as Harris so aptly shows, he was certainly an iconoclast.