Washington – Shinzo Abe, already Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, is set to pass another milestone on Monday, when he surpasses a half-century-old record set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato for the longest consecutive tenure as prime minister.
For Abe, it will be a moment of trepidation instead of celebration. It is not just that rumors about Abe’s health and months of poor opinion polls have fueled speculation that he may not survive until the end of his third and seemingly final term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and therefore, as prime minister, in September 2021. Rather, it is that even if he holds on and limps to the end of his term as the head of a caretaker government, his legacy is effectively sealed.
When Abe defied the doubters to win an unlikely and unprecedented second stint as prime minister in 2012, he promised to deliver national transformation in order to overcome economic stagnation and strengthen Japan’s ability to compete in the Asian century.
As it turned out, however, he has had no greater accomplishment than stability. His premiership followed a succession of unpopular, short-lived governments, six administrations each lasting roughly a year from 2006 to 2012 — a run kicked off by Abe’s ill-fated first time in office.
Under his watch, Japan enjoyed its second-longest stretch of growth since 1945. Its companies enjoyed record profits. The number of international visitors surged as Tokyo prepared to host the Olympics this year. Abe won election after election even as governments across the democratic world were rattled by populism.
Abe’s political dominance paid off as the world grew more turbulent after 2016, giving him the freedom of maneuver to court U.S President Donald Trump but also to pursue a rapprochement with China and carve out a new role as a champion of the global trading regime as he revived a Trans-Pacific Partnership stunned by the U.S. withdrawal and concluded a free trade agreement with the European Union.
As the U.S. pivoted to “America First” and other democratic leaders faltered, Abe alone seemed to have the wherewithal to exercise global leadership.
But the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that many of the fruits of political stability were fleeting.
The second-longest stretch of growth since 1945 — which had already ended before the pandemic due in part to Abe’s controversial 2019 decision to raise Japan’s consumption tax — was no match for a global demand shock and the virtually overnight disappearance of tourists.
His patient pursuit of a constructive relationship with Beijing, which was supposed to lead to a state visit by Xi Jinping in April, fell apart as China tightened its grip on Hong Kong, pressured Australia and other critics of its COVID-19 response, and increased its presence around the disputed Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea throughout the summer. The Japanese government’s world-leading debt, which stabilized during Abe’s tenure, will swell again after this year’s debt-fueled stimulus packages.
The fact is that over time, political stability increasingly became an end in itself, as Abe seemed reluctant to use his political capital to grapple with long-term challenges, including Japan’s gloomy demographic outlook, its risk-averse corporations, or the growing threat posed by climate change.
At other times, he would give undue priority to his long-standing political obsessions — an elusive territorial settlement with Russia or the revision of Japan’s postwar Constitution — at the expense of more pressing economic or social problems. In hindsight, therefore, Abe’s tenure will be remembered as much for missed opportunities as for domestic peace.
To be sure, Abe has delivered meaningful changes that will outlast him. His successors will inherit what may be the strongest state Japan has had since 1945.
Japan increasingly has a coherent national security establishment, featuring a National Security Council and more robust protections for official secrets. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are increasingly potent and — after a controversial reinterpretation of the Constitution in 2014 — capable to deploy overseas to come to the aid of the United States and other friendly countries, albeit in narrowly prescribed situations. New institutional powers enabled Abe to overcome notoriously turf-conscious ministries to conduct a coherent foreign policy that included strengthened relationships with regional powers like India and Australia and give Japan a more active role in the promotion of global economic integration than ever before.
But, while Abe’s successors will inherit a more potent state and a country more respected across Asia, they will still face a sea of troubles that had been neglected by Abe.
Not only will they have to manage the perils of the post-COVID-19 world, they will have to confront an increasingly contentious debate over government finances as aging baby boomers place more demands on the social safety net while rebuilding badly frayed ties with South Korea, navigating a U.S.-China cold war, trying to make more progress than Abe on stabilizing Japan’s population decline and combating climate change — all while finding new sources of growth in a more competitive global economy.
For all that Abe had hoped to be a transformational prime minister, the toughest decisions facing Japan’s leaders still lie ahead.
Tobias Harris is Japan analyst and a senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Iconoclast: Shinzō Abe and the New Japan.”